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Steelers rookie Terry Hawthorne back on the field

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Fresh off surgery to remove bone chips in his knee, Steelers rookie cornerback Terry Hawthorne took reps as the punt gunner Sunday. It's one of many roles a reserve defensive back can fill on a team, suggesting only the versatile survive.

Justin K. Aller

The Steelers selected Illinois cornerback Terry Hawthorne in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Not long after that (just a shade under a month), Hawthorne was on crutches, reportedly having gone under the knife to remove bone chips from his knee.

He received some time working as the gunner on punt coverage Sunday, apparently feeling no ill-effects from the surgery.

It's a good thing, too. Hawthorne represents one of the young members of a very diverse training camp group of cornerbacks. Speedsters like DeMarcus Van Dyke and Isaiah Green mix in with young draft picks like Hawthorne battling mostly in special teams for a chance to get noticed.

Hawthorne continues a recent Steelers trend of picking up defensive backs with a first name-variant of "Terry." Last year, they drafted Terrence Frederick out of Texas A&M (now with the Giants) and signed Terry Carter as an undrafted free agent. Neither made the team.

Hawthorne, though, could go either way. The team also signed UDFA Nigel Malone, a former All-America at Kansas State, bringing in nine cornerbacks (or guys looking to find a spot somewhere in the secondary) for training camp.

With a top three at the position pretty much set in stone (Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay), it becomes a numbers game as to who will have the best chance of making this team. Obviously, the fact Hawthorne is on the field competing bodes well for his chances, but incumbents like Josh Victorian played as a rookie, and didn't fare too badly - considering the bulk of his action came defending Dez Bryant and Miles Austin of the Cowboys.

Hawthorne is perhaps the unknown commodity of the Steelers' 2013 draft class - those picked before and after him were better known to fans heading into the draft. Linebacker Vince Williams made highlight plays at the Senior Bowl and was brought into Pittsburgh for a visit prior to the draft, and Oklahoma wide receiver Justin Brown played at Penn State before transferring.

Still, the thankless work of the punt gunner can lead to better things Steelers nickel back William Gay was a gunner at the start of his career, and Hawthorne should pay attention to him; Gay was the team's fifth-round pick in 2007.

The position can be considered open as well. Van Dyke held it for some time last year due to his blazing speed, but multiple penalties nullified a few outstanding plays, and eventually found himself a healthy scratch from the game day roster.

Now that Hawthorne is healthy, maybe he can wrest a helmet away from an incumbent.

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