LATROBE, Pa. — On practice field No. 1, second-year Pittsburgh Steelers tight end David Paulson stood next to All-Pro teammate Heath Miller while they watched one of Miller’s children do an imitation of a 40-yard dash.
Slouched over a bit, flushed cheeks making the 24-year-old Paulson look a decade younger, Paulson looked a bit like Miller’s little brother.
In a way, perhaps he is.
While Miller remains on the physically unable to perform list as he continues to recover from a gruesome left knee injury, the timeline on Paulson’s apprenticeship is speeding up.
In the span of a year, the soft-spoken kid from Auburn Riverside High School taken as a seventh-rounder in the 2012 draft has become possibly the Steelers’ best pass-catching option until Miller returns.
Not that Paulson wants to talk about it.
Even after catching a handful of passes from Ben Roethlisberger — including a diving grab in front of LaMarr Woodley — during a seven-on-seven drill on the second day of training camp, Paulson shrugged and looked at the ground when asked to discuss his rise up the depth chart in 12 short months.
“I’m a little more comfortable, and I know what to expect out of training camp,” said Paulson, who caught seven passes in limited playing time in 2012. “I know the offense. I’m more comfortable with the people here.”
Then again, Paulson always has been able to get his hands on the football.
Paulson played quarterback and linebacker in high school, but Oregon recruited him as a tight end. He ended his Ducks career with 67 receptions for 1,041 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Lining up in the slot, Paulson used his 6-foot-4 body to create matchup problems with opposing linebackers and safeties in the Ducks’ up-tempo attack.
The Steelers saw enough on film to grab Paulson with the 240th pick in the draft even though Miller was in the midst of a stellar career and veterans David Johnson and Leonard Pope were on the roster.
When tight ends coach James Daniel saw Paulson’s name was still on the board, his recommendation to general manager Kevin Colbert was simple.
“I thought he was a really good football player,” Daniel said. “I thought he was better than a seventh-round pick for sure.”
Rounding out the edges, however, will take some time. Paulson spent his entire college career off the line of scrimmage. He was adequate as a blocker, but it wasn’t exactly the most important part of his job.
Also, at 246 pounds, Paulson allows he’s hardly a “monster.” While he’s tried to put “good weight” on, it hasn’t been easy. Though Daniel believes Paulson has taken a step forward when it comes to moving defenders around in close quarters, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
In case Paulson needed a reminder, rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones provided one during the first practice in pads.
Left all alone to contend with Jones, Paulson was pushed around with ease by the player the Steelers hope will one day fill the void left by the release of former All-Pro James Harrison.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin gave Paulson an earful, though if it affected Paulson in any way, it didn’t show. It rarely does.
During his first training camp last summer, Paulson took a pounding but kept getting back to his feet. It’s that resilience that allays any concerns Daniel might have about Paulson’s ability to improve.
“He won some battles for us at the line of scrimmage last year, and he didn’t win some,” Daniel said. “Hopefully the wins outnumber the losses. I don’t think there’s any question that if we call on him for it, he’ll win more times than he gets beat.”
The key for the Steelers will be to pick the battles into which it sends Paulson. Veteran Matt Spaeth was brought back in free agency to serve as the masher. Yet Paulson must be effective enough as a blocker so that he doesn’t tip off defenses.
“We don’t want the defense to be able to say, ‘This guy’s in, they’re throwing it. This guy’s in, they’re running it,’ ” Daniel said. “That’s what we’ve challenged him with, and that’s what he’s striving to be.”
Paulson is an ardent student of the game, drawing praise from Miller and Spaeth for his maturity.
“He’s not really a guy you have to take under your wing and show him the ropes,” Spaeth said. “He’s just professional in how he does everything.”