By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 22, 2009
His new place is only a few steps to his right, but at times, it still feels miles away.
"It's not home yet," Redskins lineman Stephon Heyer said of the right tackle position. "But it'll come eventually."
As the Redskins prepare for their second preseason game Saturday night, against the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, many eyes on the sidelines will be cast in Heyer's direction, studying his command of the right tackle spot. In the offseason, Coach Jim Zorn said the position was open for competition, but as training camp came to a close on Thursday, Heyer already seems to have established himself as the favorite to start to Week 1.
Whether he's completely ready for the new task or not, those who've been watching Heyer's progress since he joined the team as an undrafted rookie two years ago, are continually amazed by it.
"I remember when he first got here, I was like, 'What? Are they kidding me?' " said right guard Randy Thomas, who lines up alongside Heyer. "But you put the pads on him, he's like a beast. It's like night and day between this camp and his first."
Left tackle Chris Samuels said Heyer is "light years ahead of where he used to be." He says that Heyer, despite being just 25 years old and having started just a dozen games, has the presence of an established veteran.
"He's done an outstanding job sucking up as much knowledge as possible," Samuels said. "You can see it: His play has just improved tremendously."
Heyer is key to the success of the team's most embattled and oft-criticized unit. For the offense to succeed, its line must block -- something it failed to do with consistency last season. And while the other linemen might have to fight off questions of age, Heyer is the only one in the group who's yet to prove himself.
He's also probably the most unlikely starter on the Redskins' line. Heyer arrived at the University of Maryland seven years ago at 285 pounds. He stood 6 feet 6 and eventually packed on a lot more weight; he was listed at the start of training at 330. College coaches initially had trouble locating a size 22 cleat so Heyer could comfortably take the field. But he was never lacking in effort, said Terps Coach Ralph Friedgen.
"He used to block against Shawne everyday, Shawne Merriman," Friedgen said of the menacing Chargers linebacker and former Terp. "And they would go at it tooth and nail. But Stephon did okay on him."
Heyer's college career stalled prior to his junior season when he tore his ACL during the first week of camp.
"I always thought that he had the talent to be a first-day draft pick," Terps offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. "But he got hurt his junior year and missed the majority of the season, and he really played his fifth year here not at 100 percent."
Redskins' offensive line coach Joe Bugel has said repeatedly that Heyer has enjoyed as good a camp as anyone the past three weeks, but coaches thought Heyer was raw when he first arrived in Washington. He was a big body who'd spent his entire college career playing left tackle, competent against the pass but like a lot of young linemen, slow to pick up the run.
"If you say he was raw [coming out of Maryland], you'd say he was raw in a sense that he couldn't do anything physically for two years," Brattan said. "He was rehabbing his knee constantly, and I think he overcompensated and developed some bad habits to try to take the weight off that bad knee."
When Heyer first reported to Redskins' camp, fellow linemen weren't sure what to make of the baby-faced giant with long, thick locks sprouting from his helmet. Samuels quickly took Heyer under his wing. The rest of the line was quick to follow when it became clear Heyer would survive the final cuts and make the roster.
"It's come along year by year. I'm slowly accepted more and more," Heyer said. "It's not given to you right away. You have to earn it with this group and prove to these guys that you want to be here, that you're going to work hard and you want to help this team."
Thomas estimates that he's played alongside a dozen tackles in his 10 years in the league. More than most positions on the team, offensive line requires newcomers to earn their way into good graces.
"You just don't get it overnight," Thomas said. "We want to see what you can do, and we want to see it in a game. Practice in shorts doesn't mean as much to us. We want to see how you help in game time."
By the end of training camp last year, Heyer had earned not only his teammates' respect but also a strong vote of confidence from coaches. Left tackle was a dead end for him -- Samuels has been named to six Pro Bowls at that position and has no plans to walk away -- so they started teaching Heyer the right tackle spot, eventually naming him the Week 1 starter.
But injury spoiled Heyer's coming out party when he suffered a shoulder injury in Week 3. When he was again healthy, Heyer failed to regain the starting job from veteran Jon Jansen. But when Samuels went down with a triceps tear late in the season, Heyer was back in the lineup, finishing the year at his old left tackle position.
"I played so long on the left side, and this is just not natural," he said of his new role, "where everything just happens. Before, I could get out of bed, and I'm a right tackle. Here, it's still playing with things, seeing where my feet work best, trying different things with my hands. I'm still getting better."
With Samuels healthy and Jansen no longer wearing burgundy and gold, Heyer again entered camp determined to prove himself. The blocking assignments are similar, but the footwork is a big adjustment. He hopes to show against the Steelers that he's improving with each game. And even though he's a front-runner to anchor the right side of the line this season, he's careful about taking the responsibility for granted.
"I learned it last year: You get humbled every day. You could be here one day and gone the next. I know that," Heyer said. "That's the NFL. Every day isn't guaranteed here. It takes just one game or one practice or one drill and you could lose everything.
"All I can do is just keep working at it, working at it, working at it. It'll start feeling like clockwork and before you know it, I'll have that feeling of comfort, you know. I'll feel like I'm a right tackle."
Staff writer Steve Yanda contributed to this report.