PITTSBURGH – Rookie Maurkice Pouncey acquitted himself so well in his first preseason game with the Steelers that he began splitting snaps with first-team center Justin Hartwig at the next practice.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was skeptical.
“It depends on how good the guards are,” said Roethlisberger when asked if a rookie could start at center. “They’d have to help a lot.”
But within two weeks, Pouncey wrested the job from Hartwig and never looked back.
The first true freshman to ever start on the offensive line in a University of Florida opener became the first rookie center in 54 years to start a Steelers opener, and now he’s receiving the accolades of a job well done.
On Tuesday, he was named to the Pro Bowl. On Wednesday, he was named winner of the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, which honors the Steelers’ top rookie. Pouncey won by a unanimous vote of Pittsburgh sportswriters.
“There were stages,” explained Roethlisberger. “After Week 1, or even in training camp, you could see that he was doing it. In the preseason, you were like, ‘Wow. He’s going to be good.’ But, still, who knew how long he could keep doing it? Then, halfway through the year: ‘Wow. He’s gotten better. I know he can do this, but he’s going to hit a wall at some point.’ Game 15, he hasn’t hit a wall yet. This is amazing, and he’s still getting better. That’s why I just think it speaks volumes for his preparation, for the time and effort he puts in – not just his body to be healthy and focused and ready, but the preparation for his mind, knowing the game plan, knowing the defenses. He’s here on Tuesdays by himself going over film. For a rookie, that’s good.”
Pouncey recalled the day last spring when Mike Wallace was given his 2009 rookie award at a dinner. He was sitting with just-hired line coach Sean Kugler.
“He looked me dead in the face and he said, ‘Now you better win that award,’ Pouncey said. “So that’s all I was thinking about the whole season, getting that award for him.”
Pouncey credited his teammates first for his success, but hung most of it on Kugler.
“He’s been great to me,” Pouncey said. “I come in on Tuesdays and meet with him about the game plan, what we’re going to run, what pass protections. He’s always been there for me. He taught me how to be a professional football player.”
Only 21 with accolades piling up, Pouncey continues to say all the right things. He mentioned he’d “give it all away for the Super Bowl” and of the first six questions put to him during the lunch-time open locker room, five times Pouncey included a mention of the importance of Sunday’s game in Cleveland.
“All of these awards are coming fast,” he said finally. “I’m not worried about it. I’m worried about Cleveland.”
“I don’t know him that well as a person,” said Browns coach Eric Mangini, “but just from the outside looking in, he’s got to have a great work ethic. There’s no doubt about that in my mind because you don’t make those strides without that. He’s not doing that on talent alone. He’s got to have a lot of the intangibles that are going to make him a special player for a long time.”