LATROBE — The practice field at Saint Vincent College is long deserted. The veterans on the Pittsburgh Steelers have already showered for dinner, and the rest of the rookies and the last-chancers are close on their heels.
Markus Wheaton, however, is just getting started. Standing near the corner of the end zone, Wheaton spends 15 minutes catching passes off a machine, clapping his hands together when the ball buzzes through his gloves and onto the artificial turf.
NCAA rules cost the third-round draft pick out of Oregon State a chance to make a first impression. Instead, Wheaton will settle for making a lasting one.
The player tasked with providing the speed lost by the Steelers when Mike Wallace took his fast feet to Miami finds himself playing catch-up. The trimester system used at Oregon State didn’t end until after the completion of organized team activities and minicamp. NCAA bylaws prevent players from practicing with professionals until their academic year is over.
While the rest of Pittsburgh’s rookies got a feel for their new job, Wheaton was 2,600 miles away getting near daily missives from Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann and relying on Oregon State quarterbacks Sean Mannion and Cody Vaz to serve the role of Ben Roethlisberger.
Ideal? Hardly. For all the hard work he put in, Wheaton admitted to more than the typical jitters when he arrived at training camp Friday.
“I felt like I was behind because I missed that camp,” Wheaton said. “But really, we all start from scratch. Mentally they’re teaching (the offense) as if no one knows it.”
Wheaton hardly appeared behind while joining his teammates for the first day of practice, drawing praise from coach Mike Tomlin after Wheaton sprinted through a sea of defenders to make a fingertip grab during a seven-on-seven drill.
“I like that urgency,” Tomlin shouted.
It’s one of the reasons the Steelers selected Wheaton with the 79th pick in the draft. That and the 91 receptions and 11 touchdowns he scored as a senior and the 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash that Wheaton believes should have been at least a tenth — if not two-tenths — better.
And it’s why they did what they could while Wheaton waited for class to break. Wheaton did make a brief trip east to work out with Roethlisberger and receivers Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in mid-June.
Saturday, however, was the first time he had an opportunity to show Tomlin and Mann that he didn’t spend his time away from the team just hanging out. Mann helped make sure of it, giving Wheaton a detailed rundown of the playbook, the route trees and the blocking assignments.
This isn’t the first time Mann has been forced to teach from afar. He was the wide receivers coach for the New York Jets in 1996 when top pick Keyshawn Johnson held out during camp. Johnson arrived a few days before the season opener and contributed a 50-yard reception in his first game as a pro.
The expectations aren’t quite as high for Wheaton, though. Mann has little doubt his newest pupil can exceed them.
“It’s up to us to get him the reps that he needs, get the success that he needs so he don’t go down the tubes,” Mann said. “Has he learned it all? No.”
Yet Wheaton appears to be on his way. He met face-to-face with Mann on Friday night, with the veteran coach giving Wheaton a series of things to work on before a walkthrough Saturday morning. In the span of a dozen hours, Mann could already see progress.
“He remembered it, just about everything,” Mann said. “He wasn’t perfect, but he was trying.”
For the moment, that’s all that matters. Barring injury, it’s unlikely Wheaton will see extensive time with the starters during camp. Then again, things can change quickly. Wallace arrived with relatively little fanfare as a third-round pick out of Mississippi in 2009 and led the NFL with 19.4 yards per catch.
Wheaton understands the comparisons to the former Pro Bowlers are inevitable, so long as everyone understands Wheaton is not the one making them.
“I just want to make the team,” he said.
Even if it means not making people forget about Wallace. Mann describes Wheaton as “fast enough” even if he lacks the “blur” factor Wallace provided for four seasons. Wheaton ran track at Oregon State and once zipped through the 100 meters in 10.58 seconds. Not quite world class, but world class isn’t a requirement to find the end zone.
“Give me a guy like Markus that’s got good speed, I can give him technique and fundamentals that get him over,” Mann said. “You don’t have to be a burner to have speed.”
NOTES: Roethlisberger downplayed any lingering pain in his right knee left over from minor surgery in June. Though Tomlin said Friday that Roethlisberger was experiencing “discomfort” in the knee, Roethlisberger said he felt great and called any pain the result of “getting old.” ... Tight end Heath Miller, still recovering from major knee surgery last December, remains uncertain on when he will be able to return. “I have no idea,” Miller said. “I’m just focused on the short term, and that’s making every day positive. I think that’ll add up to a good outcome.” Miller is on the physically unable to perform list. ... Practice was halted for 45 minutes due to rain. Players switched into turf shoes and returned to finish drills on the turf field installed last year. Practice continues this afternoon and is open to the public.
PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Markus Wheaton made a catch at the first practice Saturday. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)