Roethlisberger opening eyes

<b>LATROBE --</b> Jerome Bettis thinks it's too early to tell, but Hines Ward won't shy away from saying the Steelers made the right choice when they selected quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the first round of the draft. <br><br> "He's got it," said Ward. "He looks great. I'm excited."

Ben Roethlisberger has only been in training camp a week but he's already taking snaps with the first team, and he's played well in recent practices.

Saturday, in front of a large crowd at St. Vincent College, Roethlisberger faked a handoff into the line and outran linebacker Alonzo Jackson to the corner on a naked bootleg during a full team scrimmage. While on the run, Roethlisberger zipped a long completion down the field.

Yesterday, he quarterbacked the second team during the practice-ending one-minute drill. Roethlisberger ran 20 yards on a scramble and completed a pass downfield while rolling to his left. He drove the team to the 10 before Coach Bill Cowher awarded the offense the three points it needed to win the imaginary game.

"I actually felt pretty comfortable," said Roethlisberger. "I was nervous coming into it, but once I got into it I felt fine."

"What surprised everybody is his athletic ability," quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple said of the 6-5, 241-pounder. "He's getting better every day."

Roethlisberger wasn't so comfortable his first day out. After missing four practices while hammering out a contract agreement, he stepped into the huddle, looked around at the faces he recognized from TV and barely spit out the play.

"He was low key," said Ward. "I said, 'Man, get in here. This is your huddle.' I understand that being a rookie, the first-round pick, you come in and all the veteran guys are looking at you, but he was barely loud enough for anyone to hear the play clearly. I pulled him to the side and said, 'Look, you're our quarterback. When you step in the huddle, our eyes are on you. You've got to have that confidence.'"

Roethlisberger took to the advice and began acting as if he were still at Miami, Ohio.

"You know what, people like Hines Ward have been great leaders to me," he said. "He's not the only one. There are other veterans doing a great job with that. I think that just shows a lot of class and what kind of leadership this team has and how special this team is by those guys coming to a rookie and helping me out."

He's had his ups and downs, of course. One play after his bootleg pass Saturday, Roethlisberger fumbled the snap, but had enough poise to pick it up and dump it off to a back for a short gain.

"The best thing for him is getting those reps with the first team," said Ward. "You get the feel for routes, how the line's setting up the pocket. You may know it on the board, but when you get out there the situations totally change. He's up to it."

Roethlisberger isn't expected to take the starting job from Tommy Maddox this year, but he's playing well enough to perhaps force his way onto the second team. Currently, Charlie Batch and Brian St. Pierre are listed ahead of the rookie on the depth chart, but the coaches are giving Roethlisberger as many first-team reps as possible.

"The potential, he has it. Everything," Ward said. "He has the strong arm, and he's out here working after practice, trying to get better each day. When you have a guy like that, you have a guy with the potential to be a great quarterback."

"He's got a really, really strong arm. That's the one thing I've noticed," said Bettis. "Some of the throws he's made have been pretty impressive. Once he figures out what he's doing and where he needs to go, he's going to be a good one. He's got a cannon."

Does he have championship-caliber potential?

"You've gotta believe he is. He's shown it at the level he's played on," Bettis said. "Now, it's hard to always predict how a guy's future is going to be, especially in this league. You see some of the greatest college football players come out and not have success, so it's really hard to say, especially with the quarterback. Right now, it's way too early."

But it's never too early to ask questions. That might be what Ward likes most about him.

"He's starting to ask Plax and I what we're looking for as far as where we want him to place the ball against certain coverages," Ward said. "That's one thing Tommy's trying to teach him – you don't have to throw the perfect ball, just give them a chance. Sometimes just lay it up and let us go fight for it and let us win for you."

And some day, Roethlisberger just might return the favor.

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