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First-year cornerback brings size, ball skills to Pittsburgh Steelers

The introductions are now complete as the Steelers prepare to report to training camp this week

In Al-Hajj Shabazz, there's plenty of potential for nicknames, what with all the Js and Zs in the spelling. But the first-year cornerback keeps it simple.

"Just call me Hodge," he says as he asks you to take a seat.

Shabazz was in the final week of a spring in which he may have intercepted more passes than anyone else in the Pittsburgh Steelers' defensive backfield. And at 6 feet 2, 200 pounds, he can cause the mind to wander back to what it must've been like to watch the big cat of the Steelers' secondary in the 1970s, Mel Blount.

"I've heard it. Yes, sir," said Shabazz. "Big guy."

Shabazz said he first heard the name from his father back home in Philadelphia.

"He was a fan of the Steel Curtain team back in the day," Shabazz said. "He told me about the Mel Blount Rule, how he changed the game. If I can be mentioned with that kind of character, man -- hey, at least my dad mentioned it. Shows you how highly he thinks of me."

Shabazz chuckled at the thought, and at how happy his appearance in the Steelers' locker room makes his father, Eric Lilley, who watched his son play for Bartram High in the Philadelphia Public League and then nearby West Chester University in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.

But the question must be asked: How does a physical 6-2, 200-pounder with good hands and a nose for the ball end up in Division II?

"I was a late-growth type of kid," he said. "I was a smaller guy in high school. I didn't get 6 feet until I got to college and then I was 160 soaking wet. When two inches and 40 pounds jumped on me, people started to take notice a little bit."

And after intercepting nine passes in his final two collegiate seasons, he was asked to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

"That kind of pushed it over the edge and showed I could play," Shabazz said. "That was the big question: 'Can he play with the different levels of competition?' I went to the NFLPA game and in the first padded practice had two picks and it kind of put that question behind me."

Shabazz started that game, made six tackles, but wasn't drafted. He signed with the Indianapolis Colts in May of 2015 but was released before camp. He was told it was a numbers issue along the defensive line. "They said it wasn't a football thing."

The Steelers called him a month later, before the start of training camp, but he had just signed with the Tampa Bay Bucs.

"I had worked out for the Steelers a week and a half before that," he said. "They said they were trying to bring me in for camp. By the time camp came around, they called me the day of Tampa Bay signing me and asked me if I was ready to come in. But I had just signed an hour before."

Shabazz didn't make it with the Bucs, and the Steelers kept their collective eye on him.

"They kept in contact with my agent throughout the season, next-man-up type of thing if somebody went down, but everybody stayed healthy throughout," said Shabazz, who finally signed with the Steelers this past February.

He has the size, and shows some skill, but he hasn't made a team in two tries. What can Shabazz do differently this time?

"What I'm doing differently now is I'm attacking this playbook, like really attacking this playbook," he said. "Once I know things inside and out, I think it'll give me a way better shot on the field."


"Take special teams really serious," he said with a knowing smile. "A lot of my focus is going to go to special teams."

So far, it's gone well for the big cat from Philly.

"I feel like I could do a lot of things better, but then again I'm very critical of myself," he said. "The smallest things bother me until the next practice. I'm talking about after practice. I don't wallow in a play. I have a short memory. But while I'm watching film I'm tough on myself, even during plays that some people might think are good plays, I feel I can do everything better. There's always room for improvement."

That's the kind of talk that makes coaches happy. And dads.

"He's pretty fired up about me being with his team and being closer to home," Shabazz said of his father. "And I think it's a good sign that the Steelers came around two times. I feel like it means something, so I feel good about it."


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