Kent stars ready for first match-up

PITTSBURGH – James Harrison may need a slight boost to get up to six feet on the measuring stick, but he didn't need a boost getting around 6-foot-8 Max Starks the other day at practice.

Harrison lowered his pads and ran around the Steelers' giant right tackle, who pushed down on Harrison's shoulder pads in a futile attempt.

"He's short and compact enough that a taller offensive tackle has trouble staying low on him," said Starks.

Too bad for Harrison his opposing tackle Monday night in San Diego – Shane Olivea – is only 6-feet-4.

Harrison, though, will also be positioned just a bit outside, where he'll become re-acquainted with an old classmate, Antonio Gates, who happens to be one of the best tight ends in the NFL.

Gates ranks No. 3 among NFL tight ends with 18 receptions. Last year he was named first-team All-Pro after catching 81 passes for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns. Gates is in his third season in the NFL out of Kent State.

Harrison, meanwhile, is replacing injured Clark Haggans and will make his fifth career start. Harrison's in his fourth season and also came from Kent State.

The match-up should be interesting, but will be a first for both because at Kent all the two athletes had in common was the squat rack. Harrison was a star linebacker and Gates was a power forward.

"We knew each other," said Harrison. "I'd see him passing here and there. We'd talk in the weight room."

Even though Gates once attended the College of Sequoias, along with Michigan State and Eastern Michigan, he never played football in college. He did power Kent past Pitt in the NCAA tournament, but didn't play football. Harrison never asked why.

"He played basketball, so that's what he wanted to do," said Harrison, who was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year at Kent.

Who was the better known athlete at school?

"They went to the final four or something," said Harrison, "so I'd say he was."

Gates led Kent to two MAC titles and the NCAA quarterfinals in 2002. He signed with the Chargers in 2003, even though the 6-4, 260-pounder hadn't played football since his senior year at Central High in Detroit.

Harrison also went undrafted, but worked his way up the depth chart in three seasons with the Steelers.

Does he find it odd that these two have found a home in the NFL and will line up across from one another Monday night?

"No, I don't think it's odd," Harrison said. "He plays tight end and I play outside linebacker. It's bound to happen."

It's not odd?

"Not really," he said. "But y'all might get a thrill out of it."

Harrison made four starts last season in place of Haggans and Joey Porter. He came through with a pair of sacks, a forced fumble and a touchdown to go along with his acclaimed work on special teams. But Harrison wasn't real pleased with his performance, and said he's a different player this year.

"I've learned to stay calm," he said. "Don't go out there and freak out. Don't stress yourself, just play your assignment and do what you're supposed to do and everything else will take care of itself.

"I think I was trying to make plays that weren't mine to make and ended up not getting my job done. The important point is to just do what I'm supposed to do, do my part and let everybody else do their part."

Starks, for one, is convinced Harrison will do his part.

"He's definitely one of the toughest players you'll play against because of the strength and the height differential," Starks said. "When you're 6-7, 6-8, trying to bend down to a guy that's about 5-10 – and that's standing straight up, not getting low and leaning like he does – it causes a little bit of trouble."

Tin soldiers and Harrison's coming. More dread in San Diego.

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