Notebook: Cowher loves Ward, but ...

LATROBE - Steelers coach Bill Cowher on Monday made his first, and, he said, last comment on Hines Ward's holdout.

"First of all, Hines Ward, I love him as a player," Cowher said. "He's a great kid and very much respected on this football team, not just by the players but by the entire organization. It's unfortunate that it has come to this. Hopefully, it will get taken care of sometime in the near future, but we're going to move on with or without him. And like I said, hopefully this thing will rectify itself."

The previous day, director of football operations Kevin Colbert said it was up to Cowher whether Ward would be fined each day. Cowher would only say "those things are dealt with on an in-house basis."

Cowher also said free-agent acquisition Cedrick Wilson would start at Ward's flanker position at Tuesday's first practice, and Antwaan Randle El would start at Burress's old spot at split end.

Cowher said he has not spoken with Ward lately, but that "I take all phone calls. I have an open-door policy."

In the series of 14 40-yard sprints yesterday, Cowher was impressed by the performances of Casey Hampton and Kendall Simmons, a pair of interior linemen who are coming back from serious knee injuries.

"You know, considering the heat and weather, I was really pleased with everybody," Cowher said. "We held some guys out. Charlie (Batch) was held out with his knee. Jeff Hartings, we've held him out the past couple of years. The running backs, given their circumstances with Duce (Staley), Jerome (Bettis) and Verron (Haynes), we held them out as a medical decision.

"I thought everybody else who participated did a great job. You look at the two guys coming back: Casey (Hampton) and Kendall (Simmons); they were very, very impressive. This is as light as Casey's been since his rookie year. Kendall, you saw how he finished that last one. That's a very focused player right now. It's good to see. Those are two big players that we didn't have for most of the year last year and they are two integral players on both sides of our line."

SPEED RACER

Others who impressed during the run test were defensive end Brett Keisel, cornerback Willie Williams, linebacker Joey Porter and safety Troy Polamalu, who ran with such ease that reporters were surprised to see him perspire during interviews.

"I felt pretty comfortable out there," said Polamalu. "I know it's a long camp. Last year I really blew out the test. I really tried to focus on winning every single one and I didn't have too much leg left for camp, but this year I did what I had to do and worked hard this off-season and am really excited for camp to get started."

Polamalu believes he may have worked too hard. He dropped to 198 pounds, the lightest he's been since his senior year in high school. Polamalu said he had to spend the last week eating junk food and "sitting on my butt" to get his weight back up for camp.

"I was just doing a little too much this off-season," he said.

ESSEX: ROCK ON

Rookie Trai Essex ran alongside veteran Barrett Brooks in the heat for offensive linemen and neither appeared as if they'd finish the 14 sprints. Essex did fare better than Brooks, but both finished. That was an achievement for the rookie from Northwestern, particularly since he missed all but one weekend mini-camp last spring.

"I did go there for five days after coaching sessions," said Essex. "I did get some time with (line) coach (Russ) Grimm and (strength coach) Chet (Fuhrman). I just lifted weights and went over the playbook, so I'm not as behind as people may think. I'm going to be OK."

Essex couldn't report until either he or his class graduated. He was hoping to complete courses in two majors within four years, but only graduated with a degree in Computer Studies. He'll return later for a degree in Computer Information Systems.


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