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Tip Sheet: Rookie's tough choice

First-round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey, who's just 20 years old, will be vying to start as right guard as a Steelers rookie this season. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Having departed the University of Florida about 20 credit hours shy of his degree, Maurkice Pouncey doesn't have to worry anymore about hustling from the practice field to sociology class.

But Pouncey, an underclassman who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round last month, still must hit the books hard.

"When you're in college, you could go home and get away with maybe not looking at the playbook some nights," said Pouncey earlier this week. "Here, believe me, they know right away. It's something you just have to do. You kind of get used to it."

The 18th prospect selected overall and the NFL's highest-drafted center since Damien Woody was the No. 17 pick by New England in 1999, Pouncey is regarded as the top interior blocking prospect in the 2010 draft.

He's currently lining up at right guard, the position at which he is vying for a starting job with the Steelers, and where the former Gators star is favored to win the No. 1 spot for opening day.

Pouncey, 20, is also getting used to playing without his best friend alongside him.

Since they were 6 years old, Pouncey, and his twin brother, Mike, have played football together. For nearly a decade and a half, Maurkice Pouncey was able to look over for reassurance that Mike had his back (or, more accurately, his flank).

But while Maurkice Pouncey made the decision to forgo his senior season at Florida, Mike opted to remain behind in Gainesville for his final year of eligibility.

In 2010, Mike Pouncey is expected to move from right guard to the center spot his brother formerly occupied for the Gators. Mike Pouncey likely will be a high-round choice in the 2011 draft. There is some degree of separation anxiety, Maurkice allowed, but the demands of his new job dictate that he doesn't dwell too much on the unusual split.

"I talk to [Mike] all the time, and I'm happy for him, really," Maurkice Pouncey said after a midweek practice. "But it was just my time [to leave], even though I thought about it a lot and it was a hard decision. We're all grown up now, and it's time to step out on our own. And, let's face it, even if [Mike] had gone into the draft, we probably wouldn't have been on the same team anyway. We still would have been split up."

Said Mike Pouncey: "It got to the point where we were always known as 'the Pouncey twins,' and that followed us around, you know? It was time for Maurkice to step out and gain some identity of his own."

With his long-term future probably at center, Maurkice Pouncey could be the next in a long line of Steelers standout snappers. Current Pittsburgh starter Justin Hartwig will be 32 in November and might not be quite as stout against the 3-4 nose tackles featured by the Ravens and Browns in the AFC North.

The late Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, three-time Hall of Fame finalist Dermontti Dawson (who also started his career at right guard before moving to center) and Jeff Hartings held down the position from 1979 to 2006. The trio combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances.

One of only five centers selected in the top 20 of the first round since 1980, and the first Pittsburgh first-round center since 1937, Pouncey understands there are big shoes to fill.

For now, though, he is trying to assimilate the nuances of playing guard, a spot at which he hasn't lined up since his freshman season in college.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin termed guard "a position where you receive information … instead of giving it," referring to the blocking adjustments for which the center is principally responsible.

Pouncey conceded he misses making the blocking calls on every play, but as Hartwig's primary backup, he still must learn them. In fact, he was at center Wednesday when he received a minor injury, with guard Trai Essex stepping on his foot.

For now, though, he is married to the right guard spot, a position at which the Steelers have had a revolving door of sorts the past few seasons. And according to Steelers first-year offensive line coach Sean Kugler, he is performing well, both physically and mentally.

"He's the kind of guy where, if he makes a mistake on a play, he's immediately right over to you to get [an explanation]," Kugler said. "You've got to tell him, 'Don't worry, we'll go over that.' He really wants to be good; he's into it."

The good-natured Pouncey, who was termed an "energy giver" by Florida offensive line coach/offensive coordinator Steve Addazio in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, seems enthusiastic about all things football -- and family-related.

One of the reasons Pouncey opted to enter the draft was so that he financially could help his family, which lives in Lakeland, Fla. The family has had some tough times since his stepfather, Robert, lost a leg in a rail-car accident in 2008. Upon being drafted by the Steelers, Pouncey announced that his great-grandmother, 82, was done cleaning other people's homes.

Mentally tough, Pouncey played against rival Florida State less than a week after his stepfather's devastating accident. At the Sugar Bowl earlier this year, he was treated for kidney stones just hours before the game against the University of Cincinnati, but lined up anyway for his 40th consecutive start.

So moving to guard, even temporarily, Pouncey said, is a small sacrifice.

"If it's what I've got to do, then I'll do it," Pouncey said. "It's always been that way."

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.