Among the Pittsburgh Steelers many historic draft trends, their love of players who hail from the traditional Power Five conferences has been well documented over the years. And while that trend held true once again in 2019 for first-round pick and Big 10 product Devin Bush, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Steelers hold prospects from the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in a higher regard than options from the other smaller conferences.
Pittsburgh added three more former MAC player to their roster via the draft this year in Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson, Northern Illinois edge rusher Sutton Smith and Akron Linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III, cementing its place as the Steelers sixth most drafted conference under Kevin Colbert since 2000 with 12 selections.
Asked about the team’s affinity for the MAC during his post-draft interviews, the general manager left no doubt about his regard for the conference.
“The MAC has been a very productive conference for us. I believe we had seven players on the roster last year and we added three. The MAC has been good to us. Those players stand out at that level. They play some bigger schools, some bigger conferences, and they usually hold their own. Those players show up in those games. And a guy like Sutton Smith, as Coach mentioned, was at the Senior Bowl, and actually worked some inside linebacker in the Senior Bowl. So you got to see him at a higher level at another position. So that was encouraging. I don’t consider the MAC to be a small conference, it’s not a power five conference, but again, we’ve been pretty fortunate with players, starting with our quarterback.”
Ben Roethlisberger remains the only player not from a Power Five school ever drafted in the first-round by Colbert and it would be fair to argue that the MAC has provided Pittsburgh with some of their best players of the last few decades in Antonio Brown (Central Michigan), James Harrison (Kent State) and Roethlisberger (Miami, Ohio). The conference has also been very good to the team in terms of backup quarterbacks, giving them Bruce Gradkowski (Toledo), Byron Leftwich (Marshall) and Charlie Batch (Eastern Michigan). Current fourth-string option Brogan Roback is also a former Eastern Michigan product.
The beneficiary of two new players from MAC to work with this offseason, linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky is another member of the organization who is also clearly a fan of the conference.
“Being from Ohio, I’m proud of the MAC. I’ve seen a lot of players from there. I grew up there. Its just good football. It’s just like in Florida. Florida’s good football. Texas is good football. Ohio is good football, and that’s really where a lot of MAC schools get their guys from, Cleveland and Cincinnati. There are a lot of good players there. When you mix that up with a guy like Ulysees who came from Florida, gets good coaching in Ohio, it’s a good storm. The wide receivers from Toledo and they’ve got some really good coaches. I’m overly proud because I’m from Ohio, so that’s what I’d say.”
While wide receivers coach Darryl Drake scoffed at the notions that coming from a smaller conference would have any impact on Johnson’s ability to translate his talents to the NFL level.
“I’ve been in this thing a long time, and it doesn’t matter where you go to school or the level of competition you play against. If you can play, you can play. It’s up to the guys who evaluate, the scouts to see those things. When one of them can play, you know.
“To me it doesn’t matter where you play. I played the game at a small school because back when I came out, there weren’t very many minorities who were going to major college schools, but I could play. It didn’t matter where I came from or that this guy is at Toledo.”
“I really don’t ever look where a guy has played or his level of competition. When I take him and look at his workout, can he do the things that I ask him to do? Football is different and there are talented guys everywhere now. It’s like basketball. Anybody can beat anybody. You have two elite teams but there are players everywhere and there’s competition everywhere. Our quarterback is from the MAC and he’s a Hall of Famer. Don’t even think that because (Diontae) is from a small school in the MAC that this cat can’t play because he can play.”
Pittsburgh currently has 12 former MAC players on their roster, with a significant number of them excepted to be a part of the 53-man roster come opening day:
- Akron - LB, Ulysees Gilbert III
- Easter Michigan - QB, Brogan Roback
- Kent State - FB, Roosevelt Nix
- Miami (Ohio) - QB, Ben Roethlisberger and LB J.T. Jones
- Northern Illinois - OLB, Sutton Smith
- Ohio - DL, Casey Sayles
- Toledo - WR Diontae Johnson and OLB Ola Adeniyi
- Western Michigan - OT, Chukwuma Okorafor and OLB, Keion Adams and LB, Robert Spillane
When his career is finally over, Roethlisberger will be able to lay claim to being one the greatest players to ever come out of the MAC, part of a group that includes Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss (Marshall), Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor (Akron) and San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates (Kent State). However, he will always struggle to win top spot in the eyes of any right minded fans, a title that is rightfully owned by iconic Pittsburgh linebacker Jack Lambert (Kent State).