PITTSBURGH — Gene Chizik still remembers the first time he noticed Cole Holcomb.
Only a few months into his first stint as North Carolina defensive coordinator, Chizik was overseeing a rotation of linebackers during a spring scrimmage. When a helmet popped off a member of the second string, Chizik called for the next available man to hustle on the field.
A scrawny redshirt freshman walk-on jumped in the mix.
He made a tackle on the very first play. On the play after that, he made another one — this time for a loss.
“Who is that kid?” former UNC linebackers coach John Papuchis remembers Chizik asking over the headset.
By that time the second-stringer’s helmet was back on, but Chizik waved him off. Holcomb, just 195 pounds at the time, stayed in for the rest of the series and made tackles on three of the next four plays.
“Sometimes you get opportunities and you take advantage of ’em and you make the most of ’em,” said Papuchis, now Florida State’s special teams coordinator and defensive ends coach. “That’s kind of what started his ascension.”
Eight years later, Holcomb left the Washington Commanders to sign a three-year, $18 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s the latest attempt to fill the long-lasting void created in the middle of the field when linebacker Ryan Shazier’s career ended prematurely on a routine tackle in December 2017 that resulted in a serious spinal injury and drastically altered his mobility.
The Steelers have navigated a fruitless journey to replace a generational talent, signing free agents like Jon Bostic, Mark Barron and Myles Jack, trading for others like Joe Schobert and Avery Williamson, and trading up to draft Devin Bush. The organization even drafted big-bodied safeties like Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen, who they hoped could give them Shazier-like versatility in sub packages. None are on the current roster, and the majority lasted a season or less in Pittsburgh.
Mentored early in his career by Shazier, who maintained a locker in the Steelers’ practice facility before officially retiring in December 2020, Bush showed promise until a left ACL tear midway through his second season derailed his trajectory, and the organization declined his fifth-year option.
There’s never going to be another Shazier, and the Steelers insist they’re not looking for a one-for-one replacement.
“Ryan has been gone for some time,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I don’t know that we’re making decisions in reference to Ryan.”
But the club’s actions underscore the position’s significance — one with a rich tradition dating back to the Steel Curtain and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Jack Lambert.
Each position poses its own challenges, but playing inside linebacker in Tomlin’s defense requires an especially specific set of skills. It’s not enough to be a downhill thumper or a ball hawk in coverage. His ideal off-ball linebacker can do both — while also being speedy and an effective communicator. Shazier was all of those things.
“So much of the position is intangible quality, leadership, communication and things of that nature,” Tomlin said at league meetings in March. “It probably adds to the complexity of the talent acquisition. I think that’s probably the best way to describe it.”
The Steelers’ parade of short-term band-aids since Shazier’s career-ending injury show the rarity of that combination, which some NFL talent evaluators believe is becoming more scarce as the college game continues to spread out and evolve to favor finesse.
Linebackers making the jump from college to the NFL now might possess the necessary speed to play the position, but they can lack the instincts older generations fine-tuned in college systems that more closely mirrored the NFL’s physical style of play.
“The skill set, fundamentals and techniques are deteriorating,” one defensive coach told ESPN. “Football’s getting bad that way because it’s become basketball on turf. It’s losing the toughness and grit of the game. … (middle linebacker) is going the way of the buffalo.”
The player the Steelers want is going extinct, and the few unicorns left — like Bobby Wagner, Roquan Smith, C.J. Mosley — come with the kind of premium price tag the Steelers don’t typically pay for free agents. And because of the college game’s evolution, there aren’t many draftable, plug-and-play options.
That leaves the Steelers with two viable options: draft players they think can mold into their brand of inside linebacker or sign free agents in a tier or two below the elite players to team-friendly deals.
In the last two seasons, the Steelers have elected to do both. Not only did they sign Holcomb and Elandon Roberts in free agency, last year they drafted Mark Robinson, a converted running back, in the seventh round as a developmental project. The latter move began paying off when Robinson moved ahead of Bush in the rotation for the final two games of the season.
“It’s hard to compare these guys to Shazier, honestly,” Steelers general manager Omar Khan said at league meetings. “We took Shazier early in the first round, and he did a lot of great things for us. But we feel good about both (Holcomb and Roberts) being well-rounded. I’d say I haven’t met a middle linebacker yet that doesn’t believe that he’s a three-down player.”
After the first wave of free agency, Robinson was the only holdover at the position from the 2022 season. The Steelers replaced Jack, Bush and Robert Spillane with Holcomb and Roberts. They could also draft another young backer, or find a fit in some of the under-the-radar options on the roster, like former Giants seventh-round pick Tae Crowder, who was signed to the Steelers’ active roster after a brief stint on the practice squad last year.
“I like their style of play,” Tomlin said of Roberts and Holcomb. “They’re just veteran guys that are capable of playing. E-Rob I’ve been highly familiar with since he came out of Houston. We were down there at his pro day and just liked his play demeanor, and that has not changed over the seven years that’s been his career. … Holcomb is an athletic guy. He can run, he can get to things. He’s put together a nice body of work in Washington.” Of the two, the closest thing to a throwback, do-it-all linebacker of the bunch is Holcomb.
“The thing that separates him is that he always had great instincts,” Chizik said of Holcomb. “I think when you look at linebackers and you look at those positions, I think it requires a certain amount of instinct. And I think the great ones have it, and we would all love to say that we can coach it, but we can’t coach instincts. … He has instincts, he’s got ball skills. If he stays healthy, I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t be a three-down linebacker. It’d be hard to pull him off the field.”
A walk-on at UNC turned fifth-round pick, Holcomb doesn’t share nearly the same pedigree as former first-round pick Shazier, but his work ethic and speed give him an old-school feel the Steelers covet.
Like Shazier, Holcomb was undersized as a college freshman, weighing less than 185 pounds when he arrived in Chapel Hill. A converted safety, Holcomb quickly turned heads as he put up eye-popping numbers in the weight room — including a 400-pound power clean — and packed on muscle. By the time Chizik arrived at UNC in time for spring football in 2015, Holcomb weighed more than 200 pounds.
After seeing most of his snaps as a rotational player on defense and on special teams during his redshirt freshman year, Holcomb earned a starting job — and a scholarship — as he married his innate speed with a bulked up, 6-foot-1, 235-pound frame. A versatile player, Holcomb played inside and outside and finished his collegiate career with 327 tackles, 12 passes defended and four forced fumbles. It wasn’t enough to earn an NFL combine invite, and instead, he turned heads at UNC’s pro day when he ran a 4.48 40-yard dash.
North Carolina forces key turnover
UNC’s Cole Holcomb recovers the fumble when the Tar Heels need it most.
Washington selected him in the fifth-round of the 2019 draft and quickly put him to work as a full-time starter. He forced three fumbles and racked up 105 tackles in his rookie season, and he led Washington with 142 tackles in 2021. Before a foot injury cut his 2022 season short, Holcomb was on track for a breakout season with a team-high 69 tackles in seven games. Holcomb also wore the green dot for the Commanders and was tapped to be one of the leaders on a young defense.
Though Holcomb has three career interceptions — including a pick-six in 2021 — the biggest knock on him is his effectiveness in pass defense. While Shazier, who was also a fixture in the Steelers’ sub package-heavy defense, had seven career interceptions, including three each in his final two seasons, Holcomb isn’t as productive on passing downs. Still, those who had a front seat to Holcomb’s development don’t think that area of his game is deficient.
“We actually asked him to do a lot of different things,” Papuchis said. “Very few linebackers are gonna be as fluid as defensive backs in terms of their cover skillset. But I never felt him to be a liability. And always thought he understood how to put himself in position to offset whatever weaknesses potentially could be there.”
With so much time before the 2023 season, Tomlin isn’t tipping his hand on how he’ll use Holcomb and the other inside linebackers. Holcomb could be the three-down backer that’s eluded the Steelers for years. Or that carousel could keep on spinning.
“We’re just continually trying to get better in all areas,” Tomlin said, “and we’re not going to be bashful about doing so.”