May 8—An injury at center forced guard Kendrick Green to move into the middle of the Illinois offensive line during the final game of the 2019 season.
Green was penciled in to start again in the pivot for the Redbox Bowl when he injured his groin while the Illini were practicing on site in Santa Clara, Calif. The prognosis wasn't good.
"The trainers said it was pretty bad," former Illinois offensive line coach Bob McClain said. "They said, 'We don't know if he will be able to go.' It's not like he could hurt it any worse, but with the amount of pain he was in, he might not be able to make it."
Green tried to participate in the pregame stretch, but the pain was so intense he ended up standing next to McClain on the sideline while his teammates loosened up for the bowl game against California.
What happened next is the stuff of legend to McClain.
"He went on and played all four quarters. He never missed a play, and he played at a high level," McClain said. "That showed the mental toughness he has. He couldn't do the stretches, but when it came time that we needed him, Kendrick never missed a beat."
Such fortitude is one reason the Steelers used the No. 87 overall selection to take Green in the third-round of the NFL Draft last weekend.
With nine-time Pro Bowl pick Maurkice Pouncey retiring in February, the Steelers had one more position to address on an offensive line they already were looking to retool after finishing last in the NFL in rushing.
The goal of new position coach Adrian Klemm, promoted after Shaun Sarrett's contract wasn't renewed, was to bring a sense of nastiness back to the group. Many believed that trait was missing in the 2020 season when the Steelers relied on a finesse short passing game to build an 11-0 start before finishing 12-4 and losing in the AFC wild-card round to Cleveland.
Although the Steelers brought back interior lineman B.J. Finney on a one-year contract and have backup J.C. Hassenauer returning, they wanted to bring in a prospect to compete for the starting job immediately. Which is where Green fits in.
"We love the way that he plays in terms of what we have been talking about and in terms of changing our demeanor," Klemm said. "Just the type of attitude that we want to carry onto the field, he embodies all of that."
If Klemm wasn't convinced by what he saw on tape from the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Green, who made 33 consecutive starts in the trenches at Illinois, or on his visit to the school's pro day, he got a glowing report during a lengthy phone conversation with McClain.
"I could tell the Steelers were very high on him," said McClain, a Waynesburg graduate who began his coaching career two decades ago at West Virginia. "He, obviously, liked the things he was hearing when he talked to Kendrick, and I think talking to me reconfirmed what he thought and made him think even more highly of Kendrick."
A native of Peoria, Ill., Green decided to remain in-state and attend Illinois. He was recruited as a defensive end but was converted to offense as a redshirt freshman by former coach Lovie Smith.
The raw prospect who could squat 700 pounds made the transition seamlessly.
The next season, Green started 12 games at guard. He was a mainstay at guard again in 2019 until he was needed at center late in the season. His start against Cal was his only one at the position that year.
Green returned to guard for the start of his redshirt junior season in 2020. When covid-19 contact tracing removed Illinois center Doug Kramer from the lineup two days before the Purdue game, Green moved into the middle again. Green started two more times at center, including the season finale against Penn State. He helped Illinois average 194 yards per game rushing, which ranked third in the Big Ten.
"He improved a ton," McClain said. "He kept honing his skills as an offensive lineman. That's why he was so much fun to coach. When you're teaching a scheme, he's going to keep working at it. He pays attention to detail. He does what he can to be the best. Guys like him are fun to coach."
Judging by Green's lower-body strength and physique, he has the size and power to match up with equally strong 300-pound men on the other side of the ball. Any questions about his speed were answered at Illinois' pro day when he ran an unofficial time of 4.81 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"I feel like I'm the most athletic offensive lineman in this year's class," Green said.
McClain doesn't disagree with that claim, and he thinks Green will fit in nicely if the Steelers transition to an outside zone blocking scheme. McClain has emphasized zone blocking since his coaching career began at West Virginia and included a one-year stint at Cal (Pa.).
"It's perfect for the way he can move because of his rare combination of strength and athleticism," he said. "What he does as a center is unique. If you're in a zone system and your center is not real athletic, you use a lot of combinations with your guards to allow the center to be able to reach the d-tackles. With Kendrick, he's so athletic, it really frees up your guard to let him zone with the tackle and get to the second level quicker. Kendrick can get there by himself because he's so, so quick off the ball."
The Steelers are scheduled to hold a three-day rookie minicamp beginning Friday. It will give Klemm and the rest of the coaching staff a chance to see what McClain witnessed the past few years at Illinois.
"He checks all the boxes," McClain said. "He's everything you want. He's a great person and a guy you want in your organization. He's a great leader. Even when he was an underclassman with us, he was viewed as one of the best leaders in our program.
"The Steelers are going to be happy they got him."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .