The hardest working man in black and gold

LATROBE – It's the final week of training camp, so even the hard-core members of the after-practice bunch are checking out a little early.

Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu – two charter members – are over by the fence signing autographs.

Alonzo Jackson, well he's making one last desperate lunge for his job.

Two undrafted rookie free agents are working way out there on the blocking sled.

There are reporters, coaches, team employees wandering around the thinning practice field.

There is one veteran, but Marvel Smith's always on the field long after practice ends. No one's sure how long he stays because, well, he's always the last to leave. Rumor has it that when Smith's done running sprints and working with his stretch rope and perfecting his drop steps like some kind of lonesome shadow boxer, he goes up into the weight room and lifts. And then he goes to dinner. Sometimes there's food left.

Shouldn't somebody tell Marvel Smith that he made the Pro Bowl last year? That he, in general, has it made?

"I'm just trying to continue to get better," said Smith, the Steelers' left tackle. "I know what I'm doing out there but I just want to get to the point where I can dominate every single play, and I'm not to that point yet."

Dominate every play? Is that possible?

"It's a goal," he said. "You might as well shoot for it. I mean, it would be wrong to go out there and not think I can dominate."

Smith works on his technique every single day. And he carries a notebook with him to and from meetings and meals in case he needs to jot down something he'll need to work on later.

And the stretch cord after practice?

"I'm trying to work it so that I can do the right technique even when my muscles are fatigued," he said. "You get that resistance band on there and I can fire my muscles a lot quicker."

Marvel Smith, 27 and entering his sixth pro season, is moving into the elite class of NFL left tackles. It's a small and wealthy class, and Smith's hard work is putting him there. He's become a technician, which fits nicely with his natural skills.

"Marvel is very quietly moving into the upper echelon of left tackles in the NFL," said Tunch Ilkin, a former tackle who travels around the country in the off-season to teach technique to young tackles.

"You do take him for granted," Ilkin said. "He's very quiet, but his technique is fantastic. His sets are the same every time. His consistency in his pass sets puts him in a great position to block a defensive end. Angles are everything; pass sets are everything. He uses his hands well. You see him every day after practice taking extra sets. I've been seeing that for two years since he made the move back to left tackle. He's physical; he's tough; looks bigger and stronger. When you watch Marvel Smith play the game, you can't help but go ‘Wow'. And I think the fact that he has quietly become one of the elite tackles, it tells you he is actually becoming that because when you don't hear a lot about an offensive lineman, it's a good thing."

You don't hear much about Smith because he plays next to Alan Faneca, the best guard in the game. In the middle is Jeff Hartings, an engaging go-to guy for reporters. On the right side, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks are replacing last year's starters, so they're receiving plenty of attention.

Not that Smith cares about publicity.

"I don't have any obligations," he said, "other than to try to dominate every single play."

"Marvel is the reason why I'm still playing football. Bottom line," said defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen. "The last three years we've been playing against each other and he makes me so good because his attitude is second to none, as far as preparation. There's nobody on the team that works harder than Marvel Smith. There isn't. You go in the weight room every day after practice and he's in there. He's getting better. His mechanics are superb, man. He stays square; his hands are great; his feet are good. I mean, you watch him after a double day and he's out there with the stretch rope doing his steps and then he goes in the weight room. He won't let anyone outwork him or outplay him. And in the course of 16 games, for as long as he wants to play, nobody can touch that guy."

Two years ago, Smith's health threatened all of that. A pinched nerve in his left shoulder cost him 10 games. The Steelers finished 6-10.

The shoulder bothered him last year, and he won't say he's healthy now. "I don't think about it," is all he'll say on the matter.

Smith does admit to satisfaction over his level of play. Last year was his first Pro Bowl, probably the first of many.

"I'm starting to get to where I want to be," he said. "I'm satisfied with the way I'm progressing. That's all I want."

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