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.