PITTSBURGH -- There was that time early last season when a philosophical question was put forth to James Harrison.
The answer was more memorable than the question, which had something to do with his defense and a pack of wild dogs.
Harrison shook his head, muttered some profanities and said "There's only one alpha. Everyone else follows suit."
Well, Harrison is the alpha of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. The top pass-rusher seems to get that mantle, which honors the baddest of the bad, and so Harrison, even at 39, retains that distinction.
You see it at practice.
But when he's not at practice, particularly at these voluntary spring practices when Harrison's off vacationing in a weight room somewhere, the up-and-coming alpha this spring is becoming obvious: Bud Dupree.
And Dupree is loving it.
Possibly the only player who'll get into a workout competition on Instagram with Harrison, Dupree is healthy and happy as the young leader of his position group.
"I have the experience," Dupree said as he prepares for his third season, "so they're trying to direct me to the role of being a leader."
It shows. He's last in drills and encourages and chides those before him. And his rep draws the most commentary from a group giving back what Dupree had dished out. His happiness and energy no doubt stem from his combination of experience, health and talent as he looks for all the world to be on the precipice of a breakout season.
In that regard, the hope in Pittsburgh is that Dupree symbolizes a young defense that's added first-round pieces each of the past five years, or since the organization's been forced to overhaul one of the NFL's best units of the previous decade.
"Yes, sir," Dupree said of that symbolic parallel. "And we're hungry, too. Shoot, I can't wait till this year. It's going to be great, man. I just hope everyone stays healthy, including me, because I think we're going to have a great year."
The 2015 first-round pick has 8.5 sacks in 23 games (9 starts) and he didn't really even know what he was doing. Entering the league more athlete than player, Dupree compiled most of those sacks by sheer desire. To learn how to use his hands, bend the corner, set up blockers and in general refine his game, Dupree went to Chuck Smith, the pass-rushing guru who's been dubbed "the sack whisperer."
Before coming north for spring drills, Dupree attended three to four workouts per week with Smith. Dupree will get back on that schedule after minicamp.
"I'm excited to get back to Atlanta with him," Dupree said. "Last year I only did one month, because of my groin, but this year I go there every time I go home."
When Dupree goes home, to Toomsboro, Ga., he'll drive in on his own road. To commemorate both his community service and his sports exploits at Wilkinson County High School, Dupree last March was given the key to Toomsboro and had Bud Dupree Drive named in his honor.
The town of 472 people is located about 35 miles east of Macon and 118 miles southeast of Atlanta. The speed limit on what he called "a long road, like that one up there" (South Water Street, outside the practice facility) has been set at 48 miles per hour, his uniform number.
Dupree doesn't have Georgia on his mind just yet, though. There's work because Dupree has become a key chess piece at the start of his third season. His unusual combination of size and speed (4.56 40 at 269 Combine pounds) allows DC Keith Butler to use the 3-4 OLB anywhere from 4-3 OLB to 4-3 DE in a defense that's becoming as pliable as it is young and talented.
Dupree talked about playing the off-the-ball 4-3 OLB position at Thursday's workout.
"I have w-a-a-a-y more coverage responsibilities," he said. "Being the body type that I am, it gives me the ability to play off the ball in coverage and at the line as a D-end, being my size and being able to run and be strong at the same time.
"It's all about being limber with speed and bending. Once you have the ability to play in space, that creates a lot of opportunities for you to be in a lot of different playmaking schemes."
In other words, Dupree is a freak of nature.
"Yeah," he said with a laugh. "And that's what Coach Tomlin likes, that kind of outside linebacker."
Is that what Tomlin sees in rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt?
"Exactly," Dupree said, but added that "They're starting T.J. slow. He is with the ones now but I think I'm going to be more of the move-around guy until he comes around, and then we can both do it and (opponents) won't know if I'm back or he's back and what the play's going to be."
Dupree, like just about everyone else watching practice this week, is impressed by Watt's movement, hands and potential coverage skills. There's complete understanding of why he was a tight end for two years at Wisconsin. But Watt appears to be a bit thin to play defensive end the way Dupree and Harrison can in a nickel front the Steelers use 75 percent of the time.
"Yeah, but that's just part of coming out of college," Dupree said. "I feel he's strong enough. I've seen him work out. He's pretty strong in the weight room. His body will tone up as he goes along and he'll become a key attribute."
Another youngster in the group, seventh-round pick Keion Adams, while not as tall and rangy as Watt, is also showing outstanding athleticism.
"Yeah, Keion is very athletic and Keion has a lot of energy," Dupree said. "He plays with his hands well. I'm excited to see him blossom, too."
It didn't seem too long ago that the Steelers were lacking in pass-rushers, lacking in ends, lacking in tackles. It now seems as if they're bloated, with a player for every position in any alignment they need to use up front.
"We're not going to miss a step, whatever they decide to do," Dupree said. "And whatever they decide to do with me, I can do it."
Even be the alpha when the lead dog takes a day off.