You won't find many bigger Steelers fans than myself, which is why I helped Blitz launch this site and still contribute material from time to time. But most of my writing time is devoted to my Texas Longhorns site, where I've obsessively covered UT athletics the past four years. On Saturday, however, my football rooting interests impeccably merged when it was announced that the Steelers had selected Limas Sweed with the 53rd pick of the 2008 NFL Draft.
In other words: I know this kid pretty damn well. What follows is some background on his career at Texas and how he projects as a professional, including strengths and areas to improve.
Career at Texas: Texas lost a trio of senior receivers after the 2003 season, forcing the team in 2004 to rely on a crop of young receivers, one of whom was Limas Sweed. With second-year sophomore Vince Young still honing his accuracy in the passing game, the Longhorns were an inconsistent passing team as the developing quarterback and green receivers learned the game.
Sweed would catch 23 passes as a freshman, but it was a rough transition to the college game, with the lanky receiver frequently being pushed around by smaller defensive backs. Heading into 2005, I noted that Texas desperately needed Sweed to take a step forward with his strength and ability to use his big frame to his advantage.
Two games into the season, #2 Texas visited #4 Ohio State and Longhorns fans had their answer about Sweed. He'd hit the weight room and was exponentially more confident and assertive as a wide receiver:
Limas Sweed would finish the 2005 season with 36 catches for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns, upping his yards per catch up from 11.4 as a freshman to 15.1 as a sophomore. The unstoppable Vince Young was the superstar, but Texas fans saw Limas Sweed emerge as a special player by the end of the season. In Texas' thrilling 41-38 Rose Bowl victory over USC, Sweed caught 8 passes for 65 yards.
Vince Young would head to the pros after his junior season, leaving Limas and the Longhorns with a redshirt freshman quarterback. Thanks in large part to Sweed, Texas found itself in the national title hunt well into November before an injury to their new quarterback sent the train off the tracks. Sweed caught 46 passes in his junior year, amassing 801 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. He once again upped his per-catch average, this time to 17.4, setting the stage for what many thought might be a Biletnikoff-winning senior season.
It wasn't to be. Two weeks before Texas' season opener, Sweed fell hard on his wrist after catching a pass, spraining a ligament. Though the prognosis was grim, Sweed insisted on playing through the injury, and did for the team's first six games. With a torn wrist ligament, he simply wasn't the same player, though, and after Texas' second loss of the season - its national title hopes dashed - Sweed finally conceded that he needed to be shut down. He missed the remainder of his senior season, had surgery, and is still regaining full strength in his wrist.
College video highlights:
Limas Sweed strengths: His height and wingspan are both elite NFL-caliber strengths. He's laterally much quicker than most his size tend to be, an advantage that serves him well in creating separation at the line of scrimmage to avoid getting jammed early. Scroll up again to the highlight video featuring his game winner against Ohio State and note how adeptly he sidesteps initial contact, freeing him to use his quickness and long stride to start his downfield move. Free from contract, college DBs consistently struggled to match Limas stride for stride, and he didn't need much of a nose ahead to be in perfect scoring position.
That leads to another of Sweed's notable attributes: his outstanding hands. Even as a freshman learning the college game, he showed nice ability to catch the football with his hands, as opposed to trapping the ball with his chest. It's not a skill that's talked about enough, but it's one that frees a receiver to do more with his body.
I'm not sure I heard any of the draft pundits talk about it, but Limas Sweed has truly elite body control. He's not a Terrell Owens overall physical specimen, but he's one of the best college players I've seen in terms of being great at using his long frame to his advantage. He routinely created inches for himself that were the difference between a completion and a ball the defender could reach. Whether it was by using his long arms to shield a defender or properly leaping to a point in space that created a shield between the defender and the football, Limas has always shown great ability to be more than just a tall receiver. He's a tall receiver who puts the advantage to proper use.
Finally, it's worth noting what a hard worker and eager learner he is. After his redshirt freshman season, I wondered about his ability to be a big time D1 receiver. But each successive year, he showed enormous progress, both in physical maturity and ability to master the position.
Limas Sweed weaknesses: Does anyone remember Plaxico Burress' rookie season? It was pretty ugly, often painful, and the source of great hand wringing and "Bust!" proclamations. But in his second season, Plaxico hauled in 66 catches, 1008 yards, and 6 touchdowns. By his third year, he was a match up nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.
Though I don't know for sure that Limas Sweed will develop into an All-Pro receiver, I do know I'm expecting a bit of a rough transition before the light comes on and he becomes the outstanding player I think he will be. Sweed still needs to add a little strength to his frame, and at least to this observer, it seems as though he's the type that has to get out on the field, take his lumps, and learn from his failures.
With that in mind, I'd temper expectations for 2008, look for significant progress in 2009, and evaluate the wisdom of Pittsburgh's draft choice in 2010, when Limas should be maddeningly occupying opposing safeties or scoring touchdowns when single-covered. Football is as much mental acuity and force-of-will desire to improve as it is physical talent, which bodes well for Limas' development.
Most critically, he'll need to concentrate on improving his leg strength, quickness, and upper-body force to ensure he doesn't get tangled up at the line of scrimmage by pressing corners. That's a real challenge, and if he doesn't overcome it, he won't reach his potential. If he does, he can be for the Steelers what Plaxico Burress was before his defection.
Final pick analysis: The last thing I wanted to say is that Limas Sweed may not have represented a fill to Pittsburgh's greatest draft day need, but he's a first-round physical talent, with all the right intangibles, a proven ability on the big stage, and a fierce desire to improve and be the best he can be. He's a terrific Tomlin player and I fully expect him to thrive once he transitions to the professional game.
Be patient, but expect good things. The odds look good that a couple years from now we'll all be damn thankful Limas Sweed fell to the Steelers late in the second round.