LATROBE, Pa. — Shortly after the Pittsburgh Steelers surrendered a small bounty of picks to move up 10 spots and select a middle linebacker 10th overall in this year’s NFL draft, the player they picked — Devin Bush Jr. from the University of Michigan — saw a text pop up on his cell phone.
It was from the man he was essentially being drafted to replace, a Pro Bowler whose overall presence, both on the field and off, still had not been filled in Pittsburgh since his promising career hit a major detour on a December night in Cincinnati 17 months prior.
“He was just like, ‘Hey look, I’m here for you. Anything you need, I got it,’” remembered Bush, who told Yahoo Sports he responded by telling Shazier it was “all love.”
Shazier, it turns out, meant it. While the 26-year-old has priorities of his own — he’s still rehabbing the spinal injury he suffered in 2017 against the Bengals, regaining the ability to walk and work out as he still has hopes of playing again — Bush told Yahoo Sports that Shazier has been a consistent, positive influence on him as he’s getting acclimated to life in the NFL.
“[We communicate] daily,” Bush said. “He’s around here.”
Take Wednesday for instance, when Shazier arrived at training camp after a stint out of town. They’d kept in contact via text, but when they saw each other in person that day, Shazier offered some advice the rookie quickly took to heart before they pored over tape of a recent practice for 15 to 30 minutes in the film room.
“He said, ‘Once you learn what you know about the defense — trust it’,” Bush said. “‘You’re a playmaker, we obviously have similarities in our games and we can do similar things.’”
And the similarities between the two are striking.
Familiar skills, familiar results
Bush and Shazier rely on an impressive mixture of speed, instincts and physicality to make up for their lack of bulk, as both are around 230 pounds (though the 6-foot-1 Shazier is at least 2 inches taller than Bush).
More important, however, both are from football-crazed Florida, where they reared to play the game with a ferocity that translates well to Sundays.
“Mentality-wise [we’re similar],” Bush said. “[We’re] from down south, South Florida, where anybody will tell you football is everything, the only thing down there. So you know, we put our life on the line for that.”
That’s the mentality that allowed Bush to thrive at Michigan, where he went on to have an All-American season in 2018, logging 80 tackles (nine and a half for loss), five sacks and six pass breakups while gaining a reputation as a rare sideline-to-sideline thumper with blitz and coverage ability, an asset in today’s pass-centric era of pro football.
The Steelers fell in love with Devin Bush Jr. because of his reputation as an athletic sideline-to-sideline thumper. pic.twitter.com/CriwThpNqD— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 4, 2019
“You just look at the athletic ability — not many guys are cat quick and can move up and down the line, who are able to guard wide receivers, running backs,” Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward told Yahoo Sports. “So I think he’s got a very good skill set, similar to Ryan.”
The Steelers also loved Bush's ability as a blitzer. pic.twitter.com/qYb6u1fqew— Terez A. Paylor (@TerezPaylor) August 4, 2019
Perhaps even more impressive was the fact that Bush, a true junior in 2018, was named a captain despite being an underclassman, which is rare under Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh.
By the way, guess who else was a junior captain in college? Shazier.
“He was admired among teammates, he was a good teammate, unselfish,” Steelers defensive coordinator Kevin Butler told Yahoo Sports, referring to Shazier. “And if we get enough guys like that, we’ll be one of the better defensive teams in the league.”
Bush understands that before he can lead in the NFL, he must be able to follow. Especially as a rookie, when veterans are not only constantly sizing them up to see what they’re made of, but also eager to pounce on a lack of humility.
Learning how to lead
Bush’s advanced understanding of leadership stems from his father, Devin Bush Sr., a defensive analyst at Michigan who carved out an eight-year career in the NFL as a safety.
Shortly before he arrived in Pittsburgh, Bush Sr. warned his namesake not to step on anyone’s toes.
“I knew his dad for a long time, and I knew what kind of player he was,” said Butler, who was on a staff in Cleveland that coached Bush’s dad from 2001 to 2002. “His dad told him to be respectful of everybody else … and this year he’s gonna be the best teammate he can. He’s got to own up to his mistakes, try to help others and do his job and be where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”
So far, it appears he’s well on his way to doing just that.
“He has a good grasp of the playbook; he doesn’t look like he’s thinking a lot and I think he’s moving pretty fluidly right now,” Heyward said. “He’s in a mode of sitting back and embracing everything … his leadership will grow throughout the year. I think he’s trying to just absorb it all and be a sponge in this. He’s very direct and you never hear anything bad, but I love that he feels confident in what he’s done.”
Heyward isn’t the only influential Steelers vet who feels that way about Bush.
“I don’t know all the ins and outs mentally right now because I’m not in their meetings, but it doesn’t appear that he’s in the wrong spot [much] — it seems like he’s getting himself lined up,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told Yahoo Sports. “He’s calling the defense, so to me, for a young guy to come in mentality and be as sharp as he is, I think that speaks volumes for him.”
There’s still work to do
Butler, the man who ultimately will decide how much Bush plays this season, agrees that the rookie is a willing communicator whose natural instincts are good. But the fact is, the 5-foot-11, 234-pounder is still getting accustomed to a new scheme, which means he’s still training his eyes to decipher what offenses are trying to accomplish.
“He still needs to see some things that we’d like him to see, but he’ll get it once he gets the reps at it,” Butler said.
It’s a process not unlike the one Shazier underwent when he was a rookie in 2014, when he recorded 40 tackles and a pass deflection in only nine games (starting five) due to injury. The next year he took off, beginning three straight seasons in which Shazier averaged 88 tackles and became one of the game’s most versatile inside linebackers.
“I want to learn from his experiences, his knowledge of the game, because he was one of the best linebackers in the game when he was playing,” Bush said. “I want to be the same thing.”
It appears Bush has been heeding Shazier’s advice, too. Less than 24 hours after their film session, Bush lined up with the first team during an 11-on-11 red-zone drill Thursday. On the first play, Bush saw star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster stacked with another receiver, and there was a coverage adjustment that caused Bush to take the first receiver inside.
That turned out to be Smith-Schuster, who hesitated, broke inside and was primed to catch a touchdown from Roethlisberger … until Bush broke it up at the very last second.
“I see ya, Dev!” one Steeler shouted.
Bush followed up by attacking the correct gaps on running plays throughout the process, something Shazier also stressed would get better by trusting his eyes.
By the time the day was over, Bush — whom Butler told Yahoo Sports would be given a chance to call the defensive plays in the huddle in the preseason — didn’t flinch when asked about his looming audition as the voice of the defense,
“I remember as a kid, I used to play ‘Madden’ and be like ‘Damn, I wanna play for the Steelers’ — I used to say that,” Bush said. “I’m ready for it.”
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