Back 44 years, only five men have been the primary center for the Steelers: Ray Mansfield, 1964-75, won two Super Bowls; the late Mike Webster, 1976-88, who also won two Super Bowls, is in the NFL Hall of Fame and won All-Pro and Pro Bowl awards a number of times; Dermonit Dawson, 1989-2000, who also had multiple Pro Bowl/All-Pro honors, including one year he got every vote at center from the media and coaches; Jeff Hartings, 2001-06, who won a Super Bowl with Pittsburgh, was All-Pro once and went to multiple Pro Bowls. The current center is Sean Mahan, but the Steelers may move him to guard. Pittsburgh signed Justin Hartwig, the former Carolina Panthers center, back in March to a two year, $4 million deal, with nearly a $1 million signing bonus, so the timing could be right for Doug Legursky, who can play center or guard.
"Right now, they are looking at me more as a guard and back-up center," Legursky told Anthony Hanshew of The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch. "I'm going to be working hard to earn the respect of the veterans and coaches and find my way to the top." Legursky has been working out at the HIT Center in Huntington, and back in early March had a long-snapping clinic with former Marshall, Philadelphia Eagles and All-Pro long snapper Mike Bartrum. Legursky hoped long snapping, which he picked up rapidly, will enhance his chances of making the team.
As of Monday, Bernard Morris, the quarterback Legusky snapped to the last four years at Marshall, had not signed a free agent contract with any team. He hopes to sign with a team early this week, or look at other options like the CFL or Arena League. Also not signed was record-setting QB Paul Smith of Tulsa, who played in two All-Star games with Morris, but some other C-USA players had a good weekend. For the fourth time in five years, Conference USA produced a first round selection in the National Football League draft which began on Saturday. East Carolina running back Chris Johnson was selected by the Tennessee Titans with the 24th overall pick.
With his selection, Johnson matches former Pirate linebacker Robert Jones, who was also the 24th overall pick in the 1992 draft, as ECU's highest draft choice ever. Additionally, Houston's Donnie Avery became the first wide receiver taken in the draft when the St. Louis Rams selected him with the second pick of the second round (33rd overall) and Tulane's Matt Forte was selected by the Chicago Bears later in the second round with the 44th overall choice. A First-Team All-America selection by Pro Football Weekly and a two-time First-Team All-Conference USA performer, Johnson recently completed his four-year Pirate career with a school-record 6,993 all-purpose yards as the program's top running back and kickoff returner since 2004.
He authored a total of 18 single-game, single-season and career standards at the conclusion of his senior campaign, leaving East Carolina as the Pirates' all-time leader in kickoff return yardage (2,715), touchdowns (44), receptions and reception yards (125-1,296) by a running back. Johnson turned in his finest season as a senior in 2007, topping all Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) players to capture the national statistical championship in all-purpose yards (227.7 ypg) while also standing among the Top 25 in scoring (4th/11.08 ppg), kickoff return average (18th/28.03 ypr) and rushing (24th/109.46 ypg). In addition to representing a career-best, his 1,423 ground yards marked the highest individual total at ECU since 2001 while his 24 touchdowns and 144 points served as a school single-season record. The 2007 Conference USA Media Special Teams Player of the Year also left an impression on the league's record books, capturing career marks in kickoff return yardage and kickoff returns (115).
Avery led Conference USA and ranked fourth in the nation with an average of 112 receiving yards per game, while his averaged of seven catches per contest also led the league and ranked 14th nationally. In addition, he shattered school and conference records during his final campaign with 346 yards receiving in the Rice contest, becoming the first player in C-USA annals to gain over 300 yards receiving in a game. His 427 all-purpose yards in that game also set new league and Houston records, topping his own record set two weeks earlier with 350 yards vs. East Carolina. He became the third player in school history to gain over 3,000 yards receiving, as he caught 210 passes for 3,289 yards (15.7-yard average) and 19 touchdowns. He had 41 catches for 20 yards or longer and returned 40 kickoffs for 896 yards (22.4-yard average), including one score. He added 28 yards on three punt returns (9.3 avg) and recorded 14 tackles (11 solo) with a stop for a two-yard loss. He amassed 4,213 all-purpose yards, an average of 84.26 yards per game.
Forte' ranks second on the school's career-record lists with 808 rushing attempts for 4,145 yards on the ground, while his 38 scoring runs established the Tulane all-time record. Forte' also became the 11th player in NCAA Subdivision (1-A) history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season during his senior year. After leading the nation in rushing for a good part of 2007, Forte eventually finished second with 177.3 yards per game. He was also second in scoring with 11.67 points per game and fourth with 201.7 all-purpose yards per game. His five 200-yard games tied the single-season NCAA record held by three players (Marcus Allen of Southern California in 1981, Barry Sanders of Oklahoma State in 1988 and Jamario Thomas of North Texas State in 2004). Forte' amassed 2,432 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns in his career while also catching 48 passes for 618 yards and five scores. He gained 1,375 yards as a senior while averaging 6.7 yards per carry, scoring 23 touchdowns on the ground. He also made 18 catches for 253 yards and a pair of scores. He totaled 1,057 rushing yards with eight touchdowns and caught 30 passes for 365 yards and three scores as a junior. He also lettered in track.
On Sunday, UCF consensus All-American running back Kevin Smith led off day two of the 2008 NFL draft when the Detroit Lions traded up to select him with the first pick of the third round. Smith was joined by seven other Conference USA players in being selected on the second day of the draft, giving C-USA a total of 11 choices, more than any other non-BCS AQ conference. Also going in the 2008 NFL Draft were (Player, position, school, team, round, selection number in round, overall selection number):
Oniel Cousins, G, UTEP, Baltimore Ravens, Third Round, 36/99;
Quintin Demps, FS, UTEP, Philadelphia Eagles, Fourth Round,18/117;
Josh Sitton, C, UCF, Green Bay Packers, Fourth Round, 36/135;
Marcus Thomas, RB, UTEP, San Diego Chargers, Fifth Round, 31/166;
Robert Henderson, DE, Southern Miss, New York Giants, Sixth Round, 33/199;
Chris Chamberlain, LB, Tulsa, St. Louis Rams, Seventh Round, 21/228;
Mike Merritt, TE, UCF, Kansas City Chiefs, Seventh Round, 32/239.
On Monday, the signing of other C-USA free agent contracts, besides Legursky, started with Tulsa quarterback Paul Smith and Jeron Harvey of the University of Houston, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound wide receiver, who both signed Monday with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Other Conference USA players who had signed free agent contract on Monday included (team, position, player, school):
The Minnesota Vikings signed both DT Leger Douzable of UCF and CB Brandon Sumrall of Southern Mississippi; The New Orleans Saints signed LB Rocky Schwartz of Houston;
The Denver Broncos have signed both RB Anthony Alridge from UH and WR Lorne Sam of UTEP;
The Seattle Seahawks signed C Dustin Dickinson of Houston;
and the San Diego Chargers signed DT Keith Shologan of UCF.