Is Wallace Leaping Tall Buildings, Too?

With the losses of Santonio Holmes and Limas Sweed, the Steelers need a wide receiver to take more than a step. They need Mike Wallace to take a leap. Here's the progress report on the second-year speedster:

PITTSBURGH – Last year at this time, Mike Wallace was the surprise of spring workouts. His speed was being lauded by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a media that wondered whether Wallace could help the team as a return man and reserve wide receiver.

Wallace did more than that. He caught 39 passes for 756 yards, tied for the team lead with six touchdown catches, and was voted the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rookie of the Year.

Wallace also led the NFL in yards per catch at 19.4, nearly a full yard (0.8) better than runner-up Desean Jackson. And Wallace did it even though he was consistently underthrown on deep routes by Roethlisberger.

With Byron Leftwich filling in at quarterback this spring, the trend continued at minicamp, but the rifle-armed Leftwich promised reporters "that won't happen again."

It still happens on occasion, but more importantly, Wallace has become more than a deep-ball threat. With Santonio Holmes gone and Hines Ward on the sideline resting his 34-year-old bones, Wallace has become the go-to receiver at all levels for Leftwich.

In that regard, the questions this spring about Wallace have taken on a greater significance. And if he answers them the same way he did last year, Wallace just might become the team MVP. That's the way he's been performing this spring.

"Very impressive," said Bryant McFadden, the veteran cornerback who was last with the Steelers before they drafted Wallace.

"I'd heard about him," McFadden said. "I really didn't see too much game tape, but I'd heard good things about him. But he's the guy now, him and Hines, so that tells you a lot already.

"I think he realizes," McFadden continued, "the challenge that this year is going to be a lot different for him because he's not going to be able to sneak up on anybody. Everybody realizes he's a player. That said, the work he's putting in right now will benefit him."

Wallace has been the go-to guy this spring. Not only is he hauling in deep passes, he's hauling in the intermediate stuff, both inside and out; he's a frequent target on hot routes; and he's a target inside the 20. On one memorable red-zone snap from the 7-yard line, Leftwich threw a blistering low-and-away fastball that Wallace hauled in easily with his left hand for a touchdown.

"I'm trying to be versatile," said the 23-year-old Wallace. "I've got some big shoes to fill."

Does he feel the pressure about taking the next step up the professional ladder?

"No, because I have to," he said. "And it's not a step. I have to take a leap. So I can't take a day off."

One of the main differences Wallace has noticed this spring from a year ago is that he's getting more respect from the defensive backs.

"They're not talking about knocking me out at camp this year," he said. "This year they're talking about how much they need me and how much they're counting on me, so I'm just trying to get better every day."

And, of course, there's also the fact that Wallace is a necessary component to any success Leftwich would have as the starting quarterback early in the season. It's clear that Leftwich has focused on building an on-field rapport with him.

"Most definitely," Wallace said. "I love Leftwich. In the short time he's been here he's been a great leader, and he's been throwing some really good balls. We've been doing a lot of talking, trying to sort everything out, what I'm doing wrong, what he's doing wrong. We're working hard to get on the same page."

Leftwich doesn't throw the thing too dang hard?

"Not at all," Wallace said with a laugh. "That's how he throws. If you're a wide receiver and you want to be great, you've got to be able to catch from anybody. You know, if I'm up here complaining about how hard he throws the ball, he might not want to throw it to me. So however he throws it, I've got to be prepared to catch it."

It's obvious that Wallace has not let his success go to his head, even though it would be easy for a second-year player to do so.

"I want to go to the Pro Bowl," he explained. "I don't do this just to do it. This is what I do to eat and feed my family, so I'm trying to be one of the best. I'm surrounded by great guys and great coaches, so every day I come in I'm trying to be the best. I've got a long way to go, but if I work hard enough it will happen."

One person monitoring that work ethic is Ward, who's prowling the sidelines in street clothes as a de facto receivers coach.

"Oh, man, he's on me every day," Wallace said. "He's hard on me. He wants me to live up to the expectations he has for me. He knows I'm capable and he wants me to show it. What's the talent worth if you're not going to work hard and try to get better?"

And the blocking?

"Oh, he's always on me about that and we're not even at camp yet," Wallace said. "Right now I can just get up there and get in somebody's way, but come camp he's going to be looking to me for a couple of crackbacks. Late last season I got better at it. I'm getting used to it. I know the expectations here are high, and I'm going to live up to them."

Ward, as he's preached to all young receivers over the years, also makes sure Wallace takes care of his body in the weight room.

"I'm always in the weight room anyway," said the 199-pound Wallace. "It's just that I have a small frame. I'm not a big guy, but I'm pretty strong. I go in every day and the coaches are all telling me I'm doing a great job in the weight room.

"You know, I'm not just taking this from one aspect. I'm trying to build an all-around game. I know my blocking has to be stronger, so every day I'm in the weight room banging. I'm going in in a few minutes. Right after this conversation I'm going into the weight room."

Well, then, we'll just get out of the way.


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