By WILL GRAVES, AP Sports Writer
Willie Colon couldn’t help himself. When rookies David DeCastro and Mike Adams walk into the offensive huddle during the opening practice of minicamp on Tuesday, the veteran left guard decided to have a little fun at the expense of the new kids.
“It smells like baby milk and pampers in here,” Colon said just before quarterback Ben Roethlisberger called out a play.
Hopefully, not for long.
The Steelers wasted little time putting their top two draft picks to work during their first drills with the veterans. Both players split time with the first team in an effort to play catch-up after missing three weeks of organized team activities while finishing their studies.
Offensive line coach Sean Kugler did his best to keep his two new projects up to speed, calling them daily to go through reps and relay questions that came up during meetings.
Adams — taken in the second round out of Ohio State — would often bring his playbook and his iPad wherever he went during his final days on campus to help fight off boredom.
“To be honest, I’d be in class watching film and stuff like that,” he said. “I kind of checked out of school awhile ago, just wanting to be here, getting back with my team.”
The sooner, the better for a player eager to shed the reputation he received during his bumpy career with the Buckeyes. The massive 6-foot-7, 323 pound Adams was an All-Big Ten selection in 2010 and made the second team last year despite being limited to eight games because of his role in the scandal that eventually led to coach Jim Tressel’s dismissal.
Throw in his failed drug test just before the NFL combine and Adams arrives in Pittsburgh with plenty of baggage to go with his potential.
“I think some people question my ability (as a person) and as a football player,” Adams said. “As long as I do what I’m told and do what I’m taught I’ll be alright.”
He won’t have to look far for guidance. The locker room is littered with leaders, Colon among them.
The affable 29-year-old is now the elder statesmen among the linemen and is moving from right tackle to left guard. If Adams and DeCastro both do enough during training camp to be starters, Colon will have as much experience as the other four starters combined.
Asked if that makes him feel like a grandfather, Colon smiled and said, “I don’t know about grandpa. Maybe like an uncle.”
One who — much like Adams and DeCastro — is finding himself thrust into a new role. Colon appeared to have a lengthy future at right tackle after signing a five-year extension last summer.
The elation lasted all of one game. Colon tore his right triceps in the season-opener against Baltimore and underwent season-ending surgery. Rookie Marcus Gilbert eventually found a home at the spot, playing so well he’ll likely be the starter there when the Steelers open the 2012 season at Denver on Sept. 9.
Gilbert’s quick maturation gave the Steelers the freedom to move Colon to left guard. It’s unfamiliar territory, but one Colon will gladly explore.
“I’m comfortable because I have no choice but to be comfortable,” Colon said. “Besides, I get to play next to (center Maurkice Pouncey). I’m excited. We’re like two nasty dogs. Hopefully DeCastro can jump along and we can be three nasty dogs in the middle.”
DeCastro, the 24th overall pick out of Stanford, saves his nasty streak for the field. The soft-spoken 22-year-old spent his final month in college completing his degree in management, science and engineering. His final exams consisted of two projects and a test in his class on linear optimization.
Math, really hard math, in case you’re wondering.
DeCastro talked about the exam with a shoulder shrug, saying simply “it wasn’t too bad.” Maybe, but like Adams, DeCastro is eager to get started on his first real job.
The two rookies do have at least one thing going for them, they don’t have to unlearn the system used by former Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. They come to the team as blank slates and their responsibilities really haven’t changed despite the jump from college to one of the NFL’s top teams.
“The playcalls are different, but the schemes are the same,” DeCastro said.
It’s the stakes that are higher. DeCastro and Adams are part of a young nucleus that will likely protect Roethlisberger for the remainder of his career. Gilbert is entering his second season, Pouncey his third.
They will be given time to grow and the team has never hesitated to thrust young players into tough spots and let them learn on the fly.
It’s what happened to Colon, who started 16 games in his third season while helping the Steelers to the Super Bowl.
“With the Super Bowls we won in the past, it wasn’t on the strength of the receivers, it was the on the offensive line,” he said. “If we can stack some championships up, that will be a testament to the offensive line coach and the guys in that room. Hopefully we do well.”