LATROBE -- It took over one year -- 456 days from the day he was drafted, to be exact -- but on Friday, Pittsburgh Steelers fans finally got the chance to watch 2015 second-round pick Senquez Golson on the field, and he played with the first nickel defense no less.
The Mississippi product missed all of training camp and the 2015 season with a shoulder injury that is now fully healed. There were no splash plays by Golson in his first practice, but simply seeing him take the field with his fiery demeanor and aggressive style of play was an excellent sign for a team that has desperately needed an infusion of talent in the secondary.
"The thing about Senquez is that he’s not going to back down from anybody,” said Ross Cockrell, the man with whom Golson is competing for a starting job. “That’s one of the best attributes he has. He’s gonna put his nose in there, he’s gonna fight with anybody. He’s like a little bulldog out there."
It’ll certainly be interesting to see how quickly Golson adapts to the speed of the NFL after missing a year of football, as the second-year defender manned the slot as the starting nickel corner on Friday. He highlights an exciting group of young defensive backs that includes top rookie draft picks Artie Burns and Sean Davis.
"Artie’s got tons of athletic ability," Cockrell said. "The thing that I like about him the most is that he’s not afraid to take chances. He’s a good ball player. He’s got a good all-around game, especially for a rookie. I think he’s gonna be a contributor for us this year."
That time may come for Burns, but right now he’s playing outside corner with the second-team defense across from Doran Grant. Davis was working with the first team during minicamp as both a slot corner and a deep safety, but bumped back to strong safety with the second team defense thanks to the return of Golson.
"My versatility is one of the best assets that I bring to the field," said Davis. "I’m big like a safety, but fast and quick as a corner. Playing that nickel spot has helped me a lot too, really learning the whole defense. So I’m looking forward to this."
Suddenly one of the elder statesmen in his position group, despite just being a third-year player, Cockrell has been thrilled with the presence and performance of all the rookies, in particular Davis, who has been asked to wear multiple hats early on.
"We had Sean playing multiple positions and he did really well at that," Cockrell said. "He’s got tremendous size and athletic ability, and he’s such a smart guy. All of these guys are smart players."
- There were a few questions as to who would begin training camp on the Steelers' first-team defense, but it turned out that Friday held few surprises. All of the starters from last season, along with Daniel McCullers (nose tackle) and Rob Golden (strong safety) stepping into the openings.
- Cockrell made an exceptional play during seven shots early on in practice, playing through Darrius Heyward-Bey’s hands and stripping a would-be catch loose in the back corner of the end zone.
- Ladarius Green is on the PUP list to begin camp, but he looked significantly better running on the sideline with trainers than he did during minicamp. With Xavier Grimble bowing out of practice due to cramps today, second-year tight end Jesse James is looking forward to getting Green back out on the field and into the offense as soon as possible.
“Ladarius, he’s a bright guy,” said James. “He comes in every day and wants to know as much as he can about the playbook. He has a great understanding of everything, especially for not being able to go through those physical reps. That’s really tough for a lot of people, but he’s been handling it well. He’s done a great job in the meeting room too.”
Grimble made his presence felt with several tough catches in traffic today, but was stripped after one reception underneath. He’s built like a Greek god, but that physical potential has yet to be realized. Given the Steelers' tight end situation, he’ll likely have every opportunity to contribute to an exciting offense if he can prove himself here at St. Vincent College.
- Anthony Chickillo looks incredibly lean out here, and it shows in his explosiveness. He won a few of the get-off drills, much to Mike Tomlin’s enjoyment.
- Fans will be happy to know that all of the defensive positional groups worked on tackling during the individual period. The back seven even got to work with the new robot tackling dummies, which they seemed to enjoy.
- Wheaton made a dazzling toe-tapping catch in the front corner of the end zone despite tight coverage by Grant. Here’s hoping that becomes a habit.
- It’s incredibly early, but Jordan Dangerfield is a guy I could see carving out a role on the squad. He’s so physical and vocal, two things Tomlin has always valued. The third-year safety is very aware, too, yelling out a warning for Arthur Moats to watch the crack block when he saw Sammie Coates had reduced his split. Later in practice, Dangerfield read Landry Jones’ eyes and nearly came up with an errant throw to the flat.
- The No. 4 inside linebacker battle will be a fun one to watch. Steven Johnson dropped fluidly into coverage down the seam and nearly came up with a high-point interception, while L.J. Fort, playing with the second-team defense, picked off a poor Dustin Vaughan throw late in practice. Not to be outdone, Tyler Matakevich looked strong in the box, knifing through the line for a would-be tackle-for-loss during one team period.
- Cody Wallace is one of the nastier offensive linemen in the league, and you can already tell he wants to strap the pads on. McCullers tried a spin move at one point that Wallace rejected with a two-handed punch you could probably hear all the way back in Pittsburgh.
- Le'Veon Bell looked as explosive as ever today, cutting fluidly in and out of traffic all the way down the field on one run.