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Steelers Steelers' rookie Simmons moves up to first team after Gandy injury

Monday, August 12, 2002

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The Steelers might have lost a left tackle, but they could be discovering a new right guard.

When left tackle Wayne Gandy got a sprained left ankle and had to be carted from the practice field yesterday at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Coach Bill Cowher did not hesitate with his next move.

Kendall Simmons, left, glances over before taking the lead in a running drill at St. Vincent College. (Peter Diana, Post-Gazette)

Instead of putting in a backup to replace Gandy, Oliver Ross moved from right guard to left tackle and rookie Kendall Simmons went to right guard with the first-team offense, a telling indication of just how much the Steelers think their No. 1 draft pick has progressed.

"I like it that they kind of believe in me a little bit," Simmons said. "But I try not to read too much into that kind of stuff. You start thinking like that, you start getting kind of complacent. I try not to do that."

Gandy was injured early in practice and did not return. Cowher said the early diagnosis is Gandy, a three-year starter at left tackle, has a lateral ankle sprain -- not a high ankle sprain, which is more severe -- and there were no broken bones.

It has not been determined how long Gandy will be out, but Cowher said he will know more about the extent of the injury today.

Meantime, that will mean more work with the first-team offense for Simmons, who has been impressing the coaching staff with his toughness, aggressiveness and attitude.

"I look at it as a chance for me to get better," Simmons said. "Going against No. 1 defense, it's just a chance for me to improve myself."

More Steelers coverage

Steelers Notebook, 8/12/02



Simmons was expected to be in four-way fight for the starting right guard position, left vacant by the departure of two-year starter Rich Tylski. The other candidates were Ross, second-year player Keydrick Vincent and center Chukky Okobi, the team's fifth-round pick in 2001.

After just two weeks, it appears the battle has dwindled to two -- Ross and Simmons. And the 6-foot-1, 311-pound rookie from Auburn is closing fast.

"He's coming, he's making some rookie mistakes, but there's no substitute for throwing him there," Cowher said of Simmons, the 30th overall pick in the National Football League draft. "He's seeing things with our offense and he's making a position change coming to the NFL. But I like his demeanor. I like his approach. He's got to keep plugging away and keep learning each day."

Simmons does not appear to be slowed by moving from left tackle, the position he played in college, to right guard. He said he thought he played "all right" in the preseason opener against the New York Jets -- "I wasn't nervous, but I made some rookie mistakes," he said -- and expects to get even more playing time in the second preseason game Sunday night against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

If he keeps progressing like he has through the first two weeks of training camp, Simmons could find himself a permanent home as the starting right guard by the time the regular-season begins Sept. 9. And that's whether Gandy is healthy or not.

"We're going to find out," offensive line coach Russ Grimm said. "He's coming on. He's going to get a little bit more playing time in each preseason game. Coach [Cowher] wants to roll Kendall around, roll Keydrick back and forth, Chukky's playing center and guard, so we'll see what we got."

Simmons was asked if he's ready to play on a regular basis.

"No, honestly, I'm not," Simmons said. "I have a lot of work to do. I'm my biggest critic. I get down on myself probably harder than the coaches will. I don't like disappointing them, more or less myself, so I'm trying to get better each chance I get. And I got a chance to go to No. 1 [offense] and it was a chance for me to step it up a bit."

Simmons isn't the only player who will get a longer look with Gandy out. Grimm said Mathias Nkwenti, the No. 4 draft choice in 2001, will work at left tackle with the first-team offense today and Ross will move to right guard. Nkwenti has been one of the surprising stars of camp, showing marked improvement from last year -- only his second as an offensive lineman.

Nkwenti, who began his collegiate career at Temple as a defensive lineman, was a standout in the individual pass-blocking drill yesterday, stuffing outside linebacker Clark Haggans, inside linebacker Kendrell Bell and rookie defensive end Brett Keisel in succession.

"He's come a long way since last year," Grimm said. "He still has a way to go, but he's making progress."

Almost as fast as Simmons.

Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.

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