DeMarvin Leal was known for his time at Texas A&M to play more as a defensive end for the Aggies. He lined up more than two-thirds of his snaps in 2021 either overtop of or outside of offensive tackles. But being the Steelers’ third round draft pick as a defensive lineman for a unit that was part of the NFL’s worst rushing defense in 2021 means he might be called on to do more than that.
Leal told Nick Farabaugh during Steelers rookie camp that his weight was up 15 pounds from college. That’s been part of his effort to prepare for playing more on the inside for the Steelers’ defensive line. But he also pointed out during the first week of Steelers OTAs that he was training to still be a versatile player who can shift between any alignment.
“I’m just trying to work,” Leal said Wednesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “I’ve got my weight up to almost 300 pounds. Now it’s just more about seeing where my body is. I’ve played outside for the majority of my time in college. Basically I’m getting used to being inside so I can see what I’ll be better at. I definitely want to still be a 0 through 5 (technique.)”
Leal racked up 8.5 sacks in his junior year at Texas A&M playing more on the outside. During that time he showed a solid range in variety of pass rush moves.
“Basically it was just things I picked up,” Leal said of his pass rush moves in college. “As I was growing I would get better at it, then everybody else started working on it with me. Then it became a whole technique and became part of our pass rush plan.”
It’s hard to imagine Leal being a zero technique player now, but he gets to learn from players like Cam Heyward, who’s also learned to be a versatile star defensive lineman.
“It’s been amazing,” Leal said of his start to OTAs. “Older guys like Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt came in and I’ve just been taking knowledge from them. It’s been a blessing being here every single day to work out and get to know everybody.”
While Stephon Tuitt hasn’t been around OTAs yet, Leal has been able to learn from both older defensive lineman like 35-year old Tyson Alualu and younger players like Isaiahh Loudermilk as well.
“Honestly, I’m talking to each of them,” Leal said of his fellow defensive linemen. “I get knowledge from the older guys and the younger guys. Even the younger guys are older than me, so I need to build relationships with them too. Their knowledge is just as important because everyone has different perspectives on how things go.”
Leal also benefits from joining a roster with four other former Aggies working out OTAs. In addition to undrafted free agent rookie linebacker Tyree Johnson, Leal has starting left tackle Dan Moore Jr., and backup linebacker Buddy Johnson who both played with him in 2020 as well as tight end Jace Sternberger.
“They’ve helped me get used to the place,” Leal said of his former Texas A&M teammates. “The fact that they know everybody helped as they introduced me to everyone I didn’t know. They’ve also helped me figure out what spots to go to for food and the good places to live in.”
But OTAs are just football drills and workouts with helmets and shorts. That’s not the part Leal’s looking forward to the most this summer. He wants to start hitting so he can test himself and prove he’ll be effective on the defensive line.
“There’s definitely excitement,” Leal said about waiting to be able to hit people. “Inside is a whole different mentality. You have to quickly put your hands somebody. I’m itching to have my hands–violently–put on somebody. I just want to do something, but I have to focus on being a rookie and get through these minicamps so I can do everything I need to do.”
While Leal focuses on that, he seems appreciative of working under Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, who Leal compared to his Texas A&M defensive ends coach.
“He’s basically the same as Terry Price,” Leal said of Dunbar. “They’re both old heads, they’re funny, but it’s all about the business. It’s not that much of a change, mentally, when it comes to the coaches. But (Dunbar) comes from a different area with his knowledge of the NFL.”
Dunbar will have to help Leal adjust to playing inside and being more physical at the point of attack. That wasn’t a strong trait of his for the Aggies, but his pass rush skills jumped off the screen on his tape. If Leal can show progression to even be a reliably solid run defender on the inside and show his pass rush skills translate well to the NFL, he could earn more playing time sooner rather than later.