Pittsburgh rookie Heyward winning over veterans

Ziggy Hood heard the name, knew the pedigree and wondered exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers were getting into when they chose defensive lineman Cameron Heyward with the 31st pick in the NFL draft.

LATROBE, Pa. — Ziggy Hood heard the name, knew the pedigree and wondered exactly what the Pittsburgh Steelers were getting into when they chose defensive lineman Cameron Heyward with the 31st pick in the NFL draft.

A first-round pick from Ohio State whose father Craig is a Steel City legend following his career at Pitt? That could lead to a combustible mix of ego and privilege, right?

“It’s the recipe for it,” Hood said.

Just not with Heyward.

The rookie doesn’t really do ego. He doesn’t do privilege either. Instead, you’ll find him doing the things that rookies — even first-round picks — are supposed to do during a first training camp. If he’s not carrying the pads of a veteran teammate off the field following practice then he’s picking up the tab for the defensive line’s late-night snacks.

“He’s a rookie, and he acts like a rookie,” said defensive tackle Casey Hampton. “That’s a major thing. You kind of probably wouldn’t think that from his background but obviously his father and his mama did a great job of keeping him grounded.”

Heyward didn’t really have a choice. His father, Craig, mother Charlotte and older brothers Craig Jr. and Corey made sure Heyward knew his place.

It proved to be good preparation for life in the NFL. While confident in his abilities, Heyward doesn’t carry himself with a sense of entitlement. Good thing, because that wouldn’t go over well on a line littered with Pro Bowlers in a city where work ethic is the only currency that matters.

“He came in here, has put his hand in the dirt and was ready to work,” said defensive end Brett Keisel.

Playing in defensive co-ordinator Dick LeBeau’s intricate 3-4 defence is tough for a newcomer. Hood struggled with it. So did Keisel, Chris Hoke and Aaron Smith.

Yet Heyward has hung in there.

Hood believes the six-foot-five, 288-pound Heyward is farther along than Hood was as a rookie two years ago despite not having the luxury of going through mini-camp and organized team activities due to the NFL lockout.

Heyward swears there’s no secret to his relatively quick adaptation.

He stayed in shape waiting for the lockout to end and has immersed himself in the weight and video rooms trying to get up to speed.

“He’s not believing his own hype, that’s the main thing,” Hood said. “He’s a first rounder. He knows it.

“Everybody knows it but he’s not into that. He’s a young guy coming here trying to learn. He’s hanging around us older guys, we’re trying to show him correct ways on how to do things.”

It helps to be as athletic as Heyward. Where his father — who starred at Pitt in the 1980s before carving out an 11-year NFL career playing for five teams — was short (five foot 11) and thick (260 pounds), Heyward is nimble and light on his feet for his size.

While he’s hardly small, Heyward just laughs when asked if it’s as big as his father’s, who was dubbed “Ironhead” because of his head’s massive size and his penchant for lowering it into a defender’s chest.

Still, his teammates have been impressed with what’s going on between Heyward’s ears.

His intelligence is one of the reasons the Steelers grabbed him at the end of the first round as one of the building blocks for the future.

“He’s got all the skills,” Hoke said. “He’s big, he’s tall. He’s got those long arms like you need in a 3-4 defensive end. He has talent. It’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the schemes.”

Heyward isn’t quite there yet. That’s fine by him. While eager to contribute he has no visions of playing on the first-team this year, not while playing behind the likes of Keisel and Smith, who have a combined 19 years and two Pro Bowls between them.

“I’m not going to step on anybody’s toes,” Heyward said. “I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m a young guy and I don’t have any room to talk.”

But plenty of room to listen. Most days you can find Heyward heading to the locker room nodding quietly as his older teammates break down what just happened in practice.

Though he’s reluctant to talk about the future, he’s well aware of what he and Hood represent. On a defence littered with 30-somethings, Heyward and Hood represent the next generation.

Hoke called the duo the gatekeepers to a legacy that stretches back to the Steel Curtain defence of the 1970s. Hoke saw the two youngsters chatting intently during a meeting the other day and told them what lay ahead.

“I said ’You two are going to be the Brett Keisel and the Aaron Smith’s here in about five, six years,’ ” Hoke said. “Ten years from now they’ll still be here and they’ll be the old vets teaching the young guys coming in.”

Heyward knows it. So does Hood.

“When it’s time for (the veterans) to sit back and enjoy their families, me and Cam got to step in and be able to play hard and be able to do what they did as if they haven’t left,” Hood said.

Just not yet. Heyward understands his job is to soak up as much knowledge as he can and be ready when his time comes.

“My expectations is (we’re) the best defensive line (in the NFL),” he said. “I just get to be a complimentary player. It’s an honour to play with those guys.”