PITTSBURGH -- John Mitchell warned the media to keep an eye on young nose tackle Steve McLendon.
Maurkice Pouncey didn’t need a warning.
“Oh, man, he’s probably just as good as Hamp,” the Steelers’ center said about backup nose tackle McLendon in comparison to veteran starter Casey Hampton.
“He’s an awesome player. Strong. I can barely move him at all. He’s fast off the ball, can run and definitely make plays, so I definitely have to move when I go against him. He’s not one of those big nose guards who just try to clog up the middle. He can get around.”
But McLendon is becoming “one of those big nose guards.” He used to seethe at whoever was responsible for listing him at 280 pounds on the Steelers’ roster. It’s been that way since he joined the team following the 2009 draft.
The rookie out of Troy didn’t make the team that year, but he was signed to the practice squad. He was cut from the practice squad once and from the active roster four times before making it for good last season.
In 2011, with former Hampton backup Chris Hoke on IR after Game 6, McLendon played in 14 games and then played the majority of the playoff game. In 220 regular-season snaps, McLendon made 11 tackles and had a pair of half-sacks.
His best game was in Arizona, but he drew his greatest praise this past draft day when Mitchell, the Steelers’ defensive line coach, entered the media room to talk about fourth-round selection Alameda Ta’amu, another nose tackle.
“Everybody wants to discard McLendon,” Mitchell said to a several reporters who had expected the Steelers to draft Dontari Poe in the first round. “But let me tell you this: Hold your opinion until the season is over.”
McLendon didn’t take the drafting of Ta’amu as a slight. “We just didn’t have any depth anymore after Hokie retired, and Hampton’s hurt,” McLendon said. “There was only one guy at nose, so why not draft a nose tackle?
“Whatever’s best for the team, I’m all for.”
McLendon has always been a handful in practice. Pouncey cited the fact that Hampton “already knows everything,” whereas McLendon “is dogging it every play.”
McLendon also “dogs it” in the weight room where he and linemate Ziggy Hood have become known as the hardest workers on the team.
“They’re animals,” said linemate Cameron Heyward. “Ziggy, if he’s not here he’s working out somewhere else. Steve, he’s always up here. He’s just a meathead.”
A strong meathead.
“Yeah, he IS a lot stronger,” said Pouncey. “I felt that the other day.”
McLendon weighs 327 pounds and is now secure enough to laugh, instead of rail, at the 280 pounds at which he’s still listed.
“Confidence comes with time,” said McLendon. “As long as you believe in yourself it doesn’t matter who believes in you. As long as you believe in yourself and what you’ve learned over the last couple of years, everything else will fall into place.”
It’s falling into place for McLendon, who anchored the “Line of the Future” last week with Hampton injured and Brett Keisel out.
McLendon played the nose last week with 2009 No. 1 pick Hood to his left and 2011 No. 1 pick Heyward to his right.
“I don’t know if it’s a glimpse of the future,” said Heyward. “I can’t foretell what’s going to happen. I’m just going to continue to work and be a part of it.”
For Heyward, this offseason is his first full one in the NFL.
“I came off an injury the year before with my elbow,” he said. “I just feel a lot stronger and will just continue to work and continue to work on my technique and use better pad level.
“I hope it helps a lot,” he added. “It’s a time for us to really just take in the playbook, get comfortable in our stance and in our technique, and just improve. I think we got thrown into the fire a little bit. We’ve just got to continue to go out there and improve.”
“The official pieces haven’t been made yet,” said McLendon. “But it could be a good start to the new line.”