PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave may be quietly putting together a noteworthy start to his rookie season.
Hargrave was listed as the starting nose tackle when the Steelers released their first depth chart of the regular season. Hargrave is dealing with a quad injury, but if he’s able to play in the opener Monday at Washington, he will be on track to become the third rookie to start on the defense in 15 years.
“It’s a blessing, but at the same time, I still haven’t played yet,” Hargrave said Wednesday. “It’s not really official yet. I’m just taking it day by day, still getting better and trying to help the team.”
Hargrave, who beat out third-year defensive lineman Daniel McCullers for the starting spot, injured his quad in practice Monday, the same day he was promoted. Hargrave said the injury wasn’t serious.
“I was a little nervous,” Hargrave said. “It could’ve been worse, but I’m blessed that it wasn’t. It’s a blessing anytime you can avoid an injury like that.”
Hargrave is trying to become the second rookie in three years to start on the Steelers’ defense. Linebacker Ryan Shazier started as a rookie in 2014 and Kendrell Bell did the same as an inside linebacker in 2001.
“I just feel like I come out and work hard to try and get better every day,” Hargrave said. “I’m just doing things to help the team and take advantage of opportunities.”
The Steelers drafted the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Hargrave in the third round out of South Carolina State. Hargrave was dominant at the FCS level, where he was a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2014 and ’15. He amassed 37 sacks in 47 games at South Carolina State, including 10 or more in each of his last two seasons.
Defensive line coach John Mitchell called Hargrave a “self-made man” when the Steelers drafted him and was impressed by his power and quick first step. The Steelers initially planned to use Hargrave in sub packages and as part of a line rotation, giving ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt a much-needed rest.
But now it appears the rookie will be starting alongside the veteran defensive ends.
“He’s not a finished product, but he’s growing,” Heyward said. “I think he understands his first skill is listening. If he can continue to grow and get better the sky is the limit for him.”
Heyward is most impressed by Hargrave’s resilience.
“He keeps bouncing back,” Heyward said. “He hasn’t hit that wall where it seems like too much for him. He’s trying to grow every day and that’s not easy, but you appreciate that. As a rookie, it can be very overwhelming at times, and it probably will be later down the road, but as of now, he’s done a good job.”
Tuitt, in his third season, started just four games as a rookie. He realizes the difficulties of learning the Steelers’ defense.
“Every day at practice he wants to get better and he doesn’t make the same mistake twice,” Tuitt said. “He’s just a hard worker and he bought into what we do on the defensive line.
“For the coaches to make the decision they made, they saw something in him that he was doing well.”
NOTES: Heyward is progressing from a high-ankle sprain suffered in the preseason and said he “doesn’t see any reason” he can’t be ready for Monday. . The Steelers signed former Tennessee Titans running back David Cobb to the practice squad and released running back Cameron Stingily.