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Steelers Steelers take Auburn guard with top pick

Sunday, April 21, 2002

By Ed Bouchette, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Steelers went from dull to dazzling when they followed up their pick of guard Kendall Simmons in the first round by drafting Antwaan Randle El in the second.

Kendall Simmons played tackle at Auburn, but will play guard in the NFL. (Associated Press)

A Kordell Stewart-like quarterback at Indiana, Randle El will play wide receiver for the Steelers, return punts and has offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey already thinking about the innovative possibilities.

"The wheels are spinning right now," Mularkey said as the draft stretched into the night after a record-setting length in the first round. "You can do a lot of things with him."

The Steelers plan to use him in the slot, where they lost Bobby Shaw in free agency, and also have him return punts and kickoffs. Like Hines Ward before him, Randle El was a college quarterback projected to play receiver in the pros. He's 5 feet 9 1/2, 190 pounds and runs just under 4.5 in the 40 -- not the speed receiver they were hoping to get -- but he was one of the most exciting players in college football last season and the Steelers believe he will easily make the transition to receiver.

"I thought he stood out at the combine as a wide receiver," Mularkey said. "He's a very talented athlete."

In the third round, the Steelers took Florida State safety Chris Hope.

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When reached by the Steelers to talk to the news media last night, Randle El asked the staffer to call back because he had to pray first. Several minutes later, he talked about his ancestry being of Islamic origin, although it ended several generations ago. Still, he said his name means "creator" and "I've had people tell me the name fits."

He almost did not fit in with the Steelers because he was not the one they had originally hoped to draft with the 62nd pick. They wanted safety Michael Lewis of Colorado but the Eagles drafted him four spots earlier.

Then, they hoped to draft defensive end Ryan Denney. But before they could take him, old mate Tom Donahoe, now president and general manager of the Bills, traded with San Francisco in the spot just ahead of the Steelers. Donahoe knew the Steelers wanted Denney, but so did he.

In the first round, the Steelers made Simmons of Auburn the first guard chosen in the draft, and while he's not likely to help put them in the Super Bowl this year, they hope he will in years to come.

"It allows us to keep stability," said Coach Bill Cowher. "We have an approach to the game we're confident with and is time-proven. When we have not played at our best, our offensive line was unstable.

"We're a team built around tough, physical play. This player has that type of demeanor."

Offensive tackles have become more valuable than guards in the NFL and the Steelers would seem to have more depth at guard than tackle. But eventually, the Steelers believe Oliver Ross -- at the moment ticketed to play right guard -- could move to tackle and Simmons could start at right guard.

"I don't think he's going to come in and start [immediately]," said line coach Russ Grimm. "He may. Obviously he has the ability to come in to start."

"Good, solid offensive lineman are hard to find and there are not a lot of them," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "If you do not take one high ... the chances decrease of getting one."

The last time the Steelers drafted an offensive lineman on the first round, it was Alan Faneca in 1998. He turned into an All-Pro guard and has one year left on his contract with the Steelers. That may or may not been a determining factor in their choice of Simmons.

"We felt he was the best player at that pick," Colbert said. "He's very very competitive, very tough, a blue-collar guy. He's our type of player, a good fit."

Simmons played left tackle the past two seasons at Auburn, but he started at guard early in his college career. The pros project him as a guard because he stands just 6-2 1/2, though he weighs 311 pounds.

"He's basically been a left tackle," Colbert said. "He's built more like a guard than a left tackle. We feel he can be a good, solid guard in time. We feel he'll be a better guard than a tackle."

Simmons, a Mississippi native, said, in pure Pittsburghese, he will play "wherever they want to use me at."

"When you have a back like Jerome Bettis," Simmons said, "and a physical offensive line like they have, you can't go wrong. I'm real happy to be there."

The Steelers were willing to listen to trade offers at the 30th pick, but none came. A camera set up in their draft room showed virtually no activity among the group of scouts, coaches and Rooneys gathered around a table. There was little conversation and no one reached for a phone.

"We were listening to see if anyone wanted to come into our spot," Cowher said. "There were no phone calls."

There was a flurry of activity through the first 21 picks of the first round and a handful of trades was made. But it died after that.

"We felt good staying where we were," Colbert said. "We said, 'let's wait this thing out because we will get a player.'"

Colbert said it was easier to be patient, because the Steelers did not have an obvious hole to fill on offense or defense.

The selection of Simmons means they can now release veteran Rich Tylski, their starter at right guard the past two seasons. Tylski is scheduled to earn a $975,000 salary and the Steelers need more room under their salary cap. Ross or, if he makes a quick and impressive adjustment, Simmons will start at right guard.

"We run the football," Cowher said, "so our guards are asked to do a lot."

Simmons had surgery on both ankles in 1999, a season that ended after three games and he wound up using as a redshirt.

"The last 2 1/2 years, I haven't had any problems," Simmons said. "I've been fine and I have a clean bill of health. I'm just ready to go, man."

Simmons called his hometown of Ripley, Miss., "as big as that conference room that you're all sitting in."

But he was headed there last night from Alabama to celebrate.

"It's just a nice country town, and I'm a country boy," Simmons said. "I like living around cows and ducks and being around ponds and just doing outside work and stuff like that."

While it may lack the cows and ducks, Heinz Field has real grass and is outdoors. It may not be Ripley, believe it or not, but the Steelers hope Simmons will feel right at home there.

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