PITTSBURGH — Somewhere this spring playing in the USFL might be another like Steelers offensive lineman J.C. Hassenauer.
Hassenauer has come a long way from his minor-pro roots, having secured a spot as a valuable backup and capable starter in the interior of the Pittsburgh offensive line.
But that wasn’t always a sure thing. Hassenauer wasn’t even a starter at Alabama, and though the Tide’s recruiting prowess has led many to say that Alabama’s backups are better than other team’s starters, Hassenauer was tasked with proving just that if he wanted to make himself a pro career after making just four starts in his time in Tuscaloosa.
He did play in some big games, twice coming off the bench against Texas A&M and Mississippi State and making starts against Auburn, Clemson and Georgia in the Tide’s run to the 2017 College Football Playoff national championship.
But four college games, even big ones, does not make a pro career. Hassenauer spent the 2018 season on the practice squad of the Atlanta Falcons. Unsatisfied with his NFL prospects, he signed with the Birmingham Iron of the AAF the following spring.
In the same town where the USFL hopefuls now toil, Hassenauer played eight games for the Iron, he forged that experience into a contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers when the league folded.
Hassenauer didn’t make the team in 2019, and was back on the street after being cut at the end of training camp. But the Steelers weren’t done with Hassenauer. When Maurkice Pouncey was suspended for three games for his role in the Steelers-Browns brawl started by Myles Garrett hitting Mason Rudolph, the team brought Hassenauer back to the practice squad to finish the year.
In 2020, he made four starts as Pouncey’s backup. Last season, he lost a training camp battle to rookie Kendrick Green, but came on late and replaced Green late in the season, taking the job from the third-round rookie after his injury.
“I just learned off my experience,” Hassenauer said “There’s nothing like game experience as far as your knowledge of the game and especially knowledge of your style of play. So getting those reps getting those opportunities … you’re also able to learn a lot about yourself and a lot about how defenses attack our offense. I think it helped me a lot.”
Even after the Steelers signed James Daniels and Mason Cole this offseason, Hassenauer seems to be a relatively sure bet to make the team, with experience at center and guard. He spent most of the spring behind Cole as the second-team center, and after his humble pro beginnings in the AAF, that’s a pretty good place to be. But don’t expect the hard work that Hassenauer had to put in to get to this point to stop any time soon.
“That’s my biggest thing: never get comfortable,” Hassenauer said. “To me, I always have to earn my spot, no matter what, no matter where I am. … I’ve got to prove myself and keep betting better each and every practice.”
One of the biggest changes for Hassenauer this season is that he’s now one of the elder statesmen of the line. When the Steelers report to St. Vincent College for training camp on July 26, he will be one of just two Steelers offensive linemen (along with right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor) that has been there before.
At a position where togetherness and chemistry is so important, Hassenauer has been a big part of trying to bring everyone together with all the changeover.
“Every year, when you get new people, the main goal is to find out the best way to mesh,” he said. “We’ve done a couple things outside the facility to get the guys together and I think that’s helped a lot.”
More of that chemistry-building will take place at St. Vincent. The other thing that will happen for the first time there this offseason is football in pads. Perhaps more than any other position, it’s tough to say how things are going for an offensive line until there’s real football, and not just football-like activity.
“Seeing how people learn, how we work together, the best way to do that is through challenges on the field,” Hassenauer said, and he pointed out that the Steelers offensive line will have no shortage of challenges this summer. “We go against one of the best defenses in the league. That definitely helps.”