PITTSBURGH (AP) _ Bud Dupree isn’t one for humble bragging, but he’s willing to make an exception just this once.
“God blessed me with being a smart individual,” the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker said when pressed on where his photographic memory comes from. “If I see it one time and I do it one time, I know it. I really don’t have to study that much and I just stick with it. It’s always been a gift I feel.”
One Dupree was forced to rely on during an eventful four years at Kentucky, where he morphed from hyper-athletic tight end to inside linebacker to defensive end to, finally, outside linebacker. Everywhere he went, he flourished. Having a 6-foot-4, 270-pound frame that can do just about anything helped. So did an open mind.
The Steelers’ first round pick wasn’t exactly thrilled when then Kentucky coach Joker Phillips approached him at the end of that first training camp and asked him if he would mind moving over to defense.
Dupree chose Kentucky over Georgia Tech specifically because the Yellow Jackets saw him as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end type. And now here the Wildcats were, weeks after he walked onto campus, asking him to do the same thing.
“I was with the (starters) on offense,” Dupree said with a laugh. “Then all of a sudden I got switched? They asked me and I said no. The next week they asked me and I said no. They asked me again and I was thinking about transferring.”
Figuring out that resistance was futile, Dupree decided to use what little leverage he had left by acceding to the staff’s wishes with one caveat: he has to wear No. 2. Why? Call it a commitment to Dupree’s personal philosophy for self-improvement.
“Work like you’re No. 2, trying to be No. 1,” he said.
Four years later, somewhat improbably, he was. The Steelers made Dupree the 22nd overall pick in the draft, impressed by his size, versatility and the notion that he’s an unfinished product. While admittedly still raw in some areas, Dupree still managed 23 1/2 sacks with the Wildcats, including 7 1/2 last fall. He immersed himself in new coach Mark Stoops’ defense. The similarities between Stoops’ design and the 3-4 scheme the Steelers run is remarkable.
“If you can play at Kentucky, you can play at the Steelers,” Dupree said. “It’s just more of a competition level. Now instead of certain individuals are good, everybody is good and that’s the big turnaround, having to play against the best 11 every time.”
And that’s the part of the transition that will take some getting used to. Dupree could do worse for tutors, with five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison the wise old sage and Jarvis Jones as the slightly older brother. Jones arrived in Pittsburgh as a first-round pick two years ago but has struggled to stay healthy. He showed signs last fall before a busted wrist forced him to miss more than half the season.
Jones understands the pressure that comes when you’re taken in the first round. His advice to Dupree is to not let it affect the way you go about your business.
“I can show him the right way for the Steelers and what he needs to do to stay positive when things get tough,” Jones said. “He can’t worry about what people are saying. He can only control certain things, like coming out here and working hard every single day and just doing his job.”
If that job includes Dupree getting to the quarterback, all the better. The Steelers managed just 33 sacks in 2014, 26th in the league. It’s a number that desperately needs to improve if they want to stay on top in one of the NFL’s more competitive divisions. New defensive coordinator Keith Butler will likely be a bit more outwardly aggressive than Hall of Fame predecessor Dick LeBeau, who preferred confusing opponents by disguising coverages rather than just taking the brakes off the seven and letting them go.
That’s fine by Dupree, who insists he has no sack number in mind for 2015. He’s barely been a pro a month. He understands expectations are part of the game. He’d just prefer the understated approach that’s served him so well for so long. This is a guy, after all, who had his high school’s nickname “Wilco” tattooed on his left leg during his freshman year at Kentucky so people could say he never forget where he came from.
Give Dupree some time to learn, a chance to look at some film then do it in practice and he’ll take his chances when the lights come on for real.
“I can do a lot of things,” he said. “Not just rushing the passer. I’ve always been a team first guy. That’s not going to change no matter what they want to do with me.”