Converted DT Nix working to make Steelers roster as FB/ST ace
Ben Roethlisberger was out there for the crisp, workmanlike clinic of an opening drive the Steelers scored on during Friday’s preseason game at Jacksonville.
Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Maurkice Pouncey were out there, too.
It appeared to be a tiny, seven-snap appetizer of what to expect, personnel-wise, from the offense when the regular season opens four weeks later: All of the returnees from the NFL’s No. 2 offense of a year ago.
The Steelers’ 2014 starters… and Roosevelt Nix?
“Pouncey and Ben and all those guys, you see them on TV growing up and you always dreamed of being out here,” Nix said. “I was blessed for that opportunity, but you’ve got to quickly let that settle in and know that you have a job to do out there and make the most of the opportunities you get.”
On face value, the opportunity for Nix to make the Steelers’ roster appears to be a long shot. After all, he lasted less than two weeks in the Falcons’ camp last season after going undrafted.
And he’s playing a position that is trending toward extinction in the NFL: fullback.
The position is so new to him it’s on a different side of the ball than what he played in college.
“I’m definitely learning something new about the position everyday,” said Nix, who was a four-time all-conference defensive lineman at Kent State. “I’m just trying to take it slow and make sure that I completely understand everything as I move on. I didn’t really get that much practice at it last year — this year, I’m getting a lot of chances.”
Even in games — and with high-profile personnel.
It’s always precarious to read too much into personnel usage during an early preseason game. But the Steelers entrusting Nix during the first-team offense’s lone possession of 2015, at least raises eyebrows that perhaps Nix has a shot at making the team.
“He’s done some good things,” coach Mike Tomlin said after a practice Sunday in which Nix again took reps with the first team. “Probably the most interesting thing he’s done, he’s been productive in the special teams area. … It’s good to see a guy with a fullback-like body show some awareness and some production in the (special) ‘teams’ game.”
Nix’s road map to making the 53-man roster involves proving himself a valuable contributor on a variety of special-teams units, as well as show progress on offense.
He displayed those traits in Jacksonville, making a tackle for the punt and kickoff teams, as well as catching a pass out of the backfield. Nix was used in multiple formations as a lead blocker, too.
“He’s naturally an aggressive guy,” running back DeAngelo Williams said. “A defensive tackle in college, an All-American — and to go from going up against 300-pound guys to doing 250-pound guys, it’s an easy adjustment for him, and I’m sure he enjoys it.”
Nix is earning the respect of his teammates. It has shown in his improved performances in “backs on ‘backers” drills, as well as during 11-on-11s and other practice play.
On Sunday at St. Vincent, in addition to lining up with the first team on multiple occasions, Nix was given a carry when he was playing with the second team. He also was lined up as one of the primary blockers for the kickoff return team and took punt-block reps.
Nix had three blocked kicks during his college career (two punts and a kick) and altered another punt. He has proven tackling ability — Nix is Kent State’s career leader in tackles for loss with 65, and he is No. 2 all-time in sacks with 24.
His primary meeting-room focus, however, is on offense. And while it was Nix’s 5-foot-11 height that scared away NFL scouts when he was defensive lineman, that can be an advantage at his new position.
“The good thing about him is he’s naturally shorter, so he has an advantage in the leverage game,” said teammate Will Johnson, who himself made a position switch to fullback (and tight end) to make it in the NFL. “And the thing with (Nix) is attitude. He has a nasty attitude, and he plays that way.”
Ironically, Nix’s brother, Rozelle, is 7 feet tall — and in Pittsburgh after recently joining the Pitt basketball team.
Roosevelt has far from locked up a roster spot to ensure he can make the drive across the river to see Rozelle play when the basketball season begins in November.
But despite it all — learning a new position, one the Steelers might not keep on the roster — he has already shown he looks far from out of place.
“After last year getting cut so early, I realize that this is a business,” Nix said. “Every day, you’ve got to just be blessed to have the opportunity to be out on the practice field because somebody is at home waiting to be where you are at. So I don’t look into numbers or if something happens here I can go there or whatever. I just take it day by day here and continue to be the best I can be.”