LATROBE — The weather at Saint Vincent College matched the mood of the Pittsburgh Steelers as a thunderstorm sent the team from the practice field an hour early.
The Steelers, of course, are mourning the death of Darryl Drake, their wide receivers coach who passed away in his sleep Sunday morning.
The team took two days off before returning to camp Tuesday, when Mike Tomlin held a pre-practice press conference.
“First, I’ll address the passing of Coach Drake,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, we’re all devastated by that. I really can’t think of any other appropriate words.”
In accepting condolences later on campus, all Tomlin could say was, “No words.”
Tomlin talked about his personal relationship with Drake, which began in 1997 when Tomlin was a wide receivers coach at Arkansas State and Drake was the offensive coordinator at Baylor.
“He was viewed as one of the top wide receiver coaches in the college game,” Tomlin said. “I was politely aggressive in building a relationship with him. He probably didn’t have a choice, that’s how he described it in terms of being my friend.”
“I was too persistent,” Tomlin continued. “He extended courtesies to me like he does a lot of young guys like myself in the profession and that’s why we felt about him the way we do. He sent me drill tape and things of that nature. We developed a rapport and our relationship grew from there.”
Drake went on to Texas, and then the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals, before Tomlin hired him to replace retiring WRs coach Richard Mann in January of 2018.
As far as Drake’s influence on the team, Tomlin said that “Coaching was Coach Drake’s platform for ministry. He wore many hats. Coaching was his vocation, but he was a father, a mentor, a brother, an advisor, like we all are in a lot of ways to the men that he worked with, not only now but men over the course of his career, which expanded decades.”
Drake was 62 when he passed. He spent 35 of those years coaching college and pro football. He left behind his wife Sheila, daughters Shanice, Felisha and Marian, and two grandchildren.
Tomlin didn’t provide details of how the team plans to memorialize Drake, but that “We fully intend to pay our respects to Coach Drake continuously, not only in the upcoming days and this weekend when we step back into a stadium, but continually as we push through this journey, this 2019.”
Ray Sherman, who was the Steelers offensive coordinator in 1998, stepped in Tuesday to coach the wide receivers, with help from offensive assistant Blaine Stewart, the son of the late Bill Stewart, the former WVU coach.
Tomlin did not reveal his plan for replacing Drake full-time.
William Gay, a former Steelers cornerback who had been in camp as the coaching intern for wide receivers, wasn’t at Tuesday’s practice.
One receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, appeared to be struggling with the loss of his coach. During practice, he walked to the back of the field with Tomlin following the first team scrimmage and sat on a bench overlooking an empty field. Smith-Schuster was then joined by Ben Roethlisberger, who consoled Smith-Schuster throughout the special teams period.
The practice was cut short soon thereafter when a bolt of lightning flashed in the sky. The players trudged up the hill to their locker room for what was expected to be a 30-minute delay. However, the practice was cancelled as rain continued to fall.
Players haven’t been available to the media the last three days, but Tomlin took questions at his press conference and provided the following notes:
n Tomlin said the play of the three reserve quarterbacks Friday “was positive. ... Did a great job of communicating and even executing in some situational ball scenarios relatively well.”
n “I thought the general hustle and fitness was above the line largely in all three phases,” he said.
n Without being asked about rookie linebacker Devin Bush, Tomlin said, “I thought it was a very solid performance. Really kind of reminiscent for me of Ryan Shazier’s first home preseason game a number of years ago, in terms of production and getting around making a number of plays.”
n Cornerback Joe Haden suffered a contusion on his foot/ankle last Wednesday when Tevin Jones stepped on it during a Haden PBU. Haden sat out of Tuesday’s practice, along with Maurkice Pouncey, Vince Williams, Christian Scotland-Williamson and David DeCastro. All of the injured players are considered day-to-day.
n Sean Davis returned to practice after missing most of the first two weeks of camp with a dislocated finger. Tomlin put him to work immediately in the first heat of the “get-off” drill, which is normally reserved for linebackers and defensive linemen.
n Rookie cornerback Justin Layne struggled Friday night and Tomlin didn’t shy away from an honest critique. “It looked a little big for him at times,” Tomlin said. “Justin Layne is a very young guy who stepped in the stadium for the first time and had an opportunity to start and to start against an NFL starting quarterback because of injury (Haden) and the lack of availability of others, maybe not necessarily because of what he did to get in that spot. Such is life in football, and particularly football this time of year. I’m sure it’s going to be valuable experience for him, but not necessarily a positive experience for him. You can also take another young guy like Ulysees Grant, who made a lot of splash plays, but I pointed out to the team that those plays were made between plays 80 and 89 defensively. So the people that he was on the field with were not the quality of people that Justin Layne was on the field with. So we better not read too much into quality of performance. We all just better keep our heads down and keep working.”
n Tomlin was asked if he nicknamed Ulysees Gilbert as “Ulysses Grant,” but said it was just a slip of the tongue.
n On the young tight ends vying for the opening left by the departure of Jesse James, Tomlin said, “Some good moments, some less than good moments.” To that end, the tight ends were the focal point of the “Seven Shots” drill that opened Tuesday’s shortened practice. Starter Vance McDonald lined up in the backfield as a blocker but took a hand-off and scored on a run up the middle. On the next play, McDonald beat safety Kameron Kelly to haul in Roethlisberger’s pass at the pylon. Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader couldn’t come up with Mason Rudolph’s passes on shots 5-7.
n T.J. Watt once again flashed tight end hands by leaping high from the middle of the line to intercept a Roethlisberger loft during “Shots.”
n At end of his presser, a reporter asked Tomlin “How much does getting back to football return a sense of normalcy?” Said Tomlin: “I don’t know that it does, but we have professional obligations ... so we intend to march.”