PITTSBURGH -- If Jordan Zumwalt turns into a sixth-round steal -- or even if he just provides depth at linebacker and a live wire on special teams -- the Steelers will have to credit former defensive quality control coach Lou Spanos with an assist.
Spanos installed a defense similar to the one the Steelers play when he joined Jim Mora's staff at UCLA in 2012. And Zumwalt made 22 of his 30 career starts for the Bruins with Spanos running the defense.
"He's the man," Zumwalt said of Spanos, a Steelers coach from 1995-2009 who is now the Tennessee Titans' linebackers coach. "Before I came here he was talking about the Steelers way. He taught me a lot. There's a lot I can transfer onto the field and he taught me to be a better person off the field as well."
The head start that Zumwalt received in learning the Steelers' defense will be especially helpful since the 6-foot-4, 235-pounder will miss the majority of the OTA practices.
UCLA uses quarters instead of semesters to break up its school year and classes don't end in Westwood until next month. Zumwalt won't return to Pittsburgh until the last week of OTAs though he will also get to take part in the minicamp that concludes offseason practices.
Zumwalt said he will stay in touch with the coaches while he is back at UCLA and that he will study a defense that was already familiar to him before the Steelers drafted him.
"Luckily I’m coming from a very similar defense,” Zumwalt said. "It’s all just different names so you have to learn the different language but it’s all similar schemes."
Having a good base to learn the Steelers' defense is critical for Zumwalt since he will be asked to learn multiple positions. Zumwalt played both inside and outside linebacker during rookie minicamp and his versatility may be the key to his making the Steelers.
The Steelers are thin at outside linebacker, and Zumwalt may have to prove he can provide depth there as well as at inside linebacker to stick with the team.
The California kid has the potential to become a fan favorite in Pittsburgh.
He is personable, plays every game as if it may be his last one and loves to hit.
“For about a month that was the topic of every conversation,” Zumwalt said. “Hopefully I will get lucky enough to get one of those out here and be a Pittsburgh favorite.”
What should also endear Zumwalt, whose father played football at Arizona State, to Steelers fans and his new coaches: He has an appreciation for special teams.
“I really plan on being a big special-teams guy here if coach [Mike Tomlin] gives me the opportunity,” Zumwalt said. “I’d love to be on every special teams here if I got the chance.”