PITTSBURGH — When Kendrick Green returned to Steelers practice for the first day of training camp at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, something was different.
It wasn’t just that the full Steelers team had assembled for the first time in his young career or that the short workout sessions of OTAs had been replaced by a full two-hour training camp practice.
The biggest difference for Green was the he was practicing with the first-team offense. Green had spent the spring working behind veteran J.C. Hassenauer at the center position. But for practice one of his first training camp, Green was snapping balls to Ben Roethlisberger.
The third-round pick out of Illinois tried not to make a big deal of that fact, saying on Thursday that it’s just a step in the process.
“I’ve still got my things I need to work on,” Green said. “I’m not really thinking about that.”
Head coach Mike Tomlin had Hassenauer atop his first official depth chart for the 2021 season, but he emphasized on Wednesday that every job is open if a player performs well enough at training camp, and the center job is more open than most.
For Tomlin, Green’s return to the field for training camp showed a noticeable difference, as well, in that his rookie center spent the month off putting in hard work to become a better player while away from the team.
“I just want to see him digest the verbiage, do a good job of communicating and being that hub, a focal point of the offensive line,” Tomlin said. “He’s embracing that element of it. I like what he did from a conditioning standpoint between the end of the spring and now. You could see that he’s one of the guys that took a step in that month or so away from us. He really spent that time in the right areas.”
Green has plenty of help when it comes to mastering the mental part of his position. His quarterback is an 18-year veteran. Playing alongside him at center are two players with lots of NFL experience in B.J. Finney and Hassenauer.
“J.C. and B.J. Finney, they’ve helped me out a ton, just with playbook stuff and things like that,” Green said.
And then there’s the Steelers defense, which came into focus for the rookie on Wednesday with the first padded-up battle between Green and longtime vets Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward on the other side of the ball.
“They’re the best you can get, so working with them, you have to get better,” Green said. “You don’t have a choice.”
It’s relatively rare for any third-round pick to step directly into a starter’s role, and even more so on the line, where players of that pedigree are usually given a few years to adapt to the size and strength of NFL opposition before being asked to play a big role.
But it seems that the Steelers are intent on giving Green every opportunity to show that he can be the exception to that rule.