Ryan Shazier grew up the football equivalent of a Rorschach test.
Some coaches looked at Shazier’s 6-foot-1 frame with plenty of room to grow and saw a defensive end. Others focused on his blazing speed and saw a safety.
“I always like to hit people,” he said. “Linebacker is like the best spot because you get to hit people ... I feel it’s my calling.”
Judging by the rookie’s fearless first week of training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he’s not wrong.
The 15th overall pick in the draft is drawing raves from his teammates for his quickness and his coaches for his smarts.
Now comes the hard part: incorporating both in the span of a month in a defense that can take years to master.
“He has all the intangibles,” inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said.
And some of the tangibles, too.
Shazier provided training camp with its initial “wow” moment on Monday during “backs on backers,” a pass blocking drill that also serves as a rite of passage for rookies. It is the first drill of the summer done in full pads, one designed to give young players a taste of the physicality that awaits.
With one startling sequence, Shazier showcased why the Steelers made him the highest linebacker they’ve taken in the draft since they took Timmons in the same spot in 2007.
Pitted against veteran running back LeGarrette Blount, Shazier faked right then sprinted left. Blount reached out to jam him, but by the time Blount’s arms were extended, Shazier was already at the quarterback (in this case former All-Pro linebacker and current assistant coach Joey Porter).
“Speed is your asset!” Porter repeated over and over as the two met in the backfield.
Coach Mike Tomlin immediately ordered Shazier and Blount back to the line of scrimmage. The second snap was an instant replay of the first, with Shazier dancing his way by Blount to an ecstatic Porter.
Blount salvaged some pride the third time around, effectively stopping Shazier when Shazier attempted to bullrush the heavier — and decidedly stronger — running back.
“I’ve still got to work on it,” Shazier said.
And he’s got time, just not that much. Shazier is the rarest of Steelers rookies: one expected to come in and start right away while playing a pivotal spot in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s complex 3-4 defense.
It’s a responsibility even players such as Timmons have struggled to master, and Timmons had the luxury of spending his first two seasons as role player.
“We were a totally different ballclub when I came in,” Timmons said. “It’s hard to compare. He’s blessed to be in a circumstance where he can start early.”
While linebackers coach Keith Butler allows he can “hide” Shazier occasionally, he understands opponents will try to take advantage of Shazier’s inexperience.
Thing is, the Steelers don’t consider Shazier as inexperienced as the typical rookie.
Ohio State coaches asked him to become a student not just of his position but of where the other 10 defenders are supposed to be as well. Butler believes Shazier’s ability to think about the entire scheme instead of his own personal assignment will make the transition from college to the NFL easier.
“A lot of times when they understand concepts it’s easy for them to pick up stuff,” Butler said. “They know the reason they’re doing what they’re doing and they know they need to be at this place at this time within the framework of the play.”
Shazier is comfortable with the expectations, even at a place that tends to churn out Pro Bowl linebackers with alarming regularity.