Young centers learning on the run

Darnell Stapleton may undergo knee surgery, according to the rumor mill. Therefore, either Doug Legursky or A.Q. Shipley must play well enough to contribute. So far, so good.

UNITY TWP. – No news on Darnell Stapleton remains good news for young centers Doug Legursky and A.Q. Shipley, who are receiving all the reps in Steelers practice these days.

And, surprisingly, the defensive linemen aren't bursting through the middle of the line and creating practice chaos.

"You don't watch tape, do you?" said nose tackle Chris Hoke.

It was a response to a question that could've been taken as a slap at the defensive tackles. But Hoke was just kidding. He howled in delight after his answer.

"No, they're doing a good job," Hoke said. "They really are, and I'm not just blowing smoke. They have a lot more to learn, but for right now, where they're at, I think the coaches are pleased."

The coaches are pleased. They like Doug Legursky's strength and experience and feel they could play with him right now if they had to. Legursky was a member of the Steelers' practice squad last season after they signed him out of Marshall University as an undrafted free agent.

He's "country strong" as the saying goes, but Legursky got there from the weight room. The 6-1, 323-pounder has little fat and set three West Virginia state weightlifting records in 2003.

"He's gotten a lot better since last season," Hoke said. "I think he's got a lot of confidence right now, and running with the first team you've got to have confidence. He's very strong at the point of attack and pretty quick for his size."

"People are going to be surprised, but that kid can play," line coach Larry Zierlein said of Legursky. "No one wants to believe it about an undrafted player, but he can play."

Legursky has received all of the first-team reps with Justin Hartwig and Stapleton out with injuries. The backup is seventh-round draft pick Allan Quay Shipley, A. Q., or "Q", as he's called by teammates.

Before starting three seasons at Penn State and winning the Rimington Award as the best center in the country last year, Shipley played high school ball at Moon High with the son of Mike Webster, Garrett Webster. Shipley became so close to the family that the Websters petitioned the Steelers to allow Shipley wear the retired No. 52 of the Hall of Fame center.

The request was not acted upon – not that Shipley has followed up on any of it. He has enough on his plate as is.

"From Day One to right now is like night and day," Shipley said. "I was a little wide-eyed trying to adjust to everything so quickly, and then it settled down and I'm getting more comfortable the more reps I get. It's Day 5 or Day 6 right now and I'm feeling pretty comfortable.

"I'm feeling pretty good. I'm competing. I'm attacking. I know my assignments. I'm just going to go out and execute my assignments as physically as I can. That's one trait the Steelers have: a nasty offensive line."

Shipley becomes defensive when his 6-0, 298-pound frame is questioned. He's quick to point out that he was third at the combine in reps on the bench and that he can squat 700 pounds.

The coaching staff likes Shipley's mobility and understanding of blitz pickups. Hoke likes his hand quickness. And Shipley's short arms? Hoke says they're not a problem.

"I've got short arms, too," Hoke said. "It's about whoever gets his hands inside first, the quicker hands. When I go up against a guy with longer arms, my arms are shorter but I can get my hands inside more quickly and control him, so it doesn't matter, shorter or longer, really."

Shipley is also the Steelers' second-team long-snapper (second team at Penn St., too). It might help him in a battle with Legursky, particularly if the rumor is true that Stapleton's knee will require surgery.

NOTES – Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed Wednesday's practice after continuing to complain about a sore arm. Coach Mike Tomlin said he was looking for a chance to have the offense perform without Roethlisberger, and that he'll return Thursday. ... In a strange coincidence, the four Steelers from New Orleans – Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark – all have tattoos of the Saints' insignia. Wallace's is on his neck.

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