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Steelers running back Chris Rainey seeks own identity

| Tuesday, July 31, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers running back Chris Rainey pops through the line during practice at St. Vincent College during practice July 29, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Whatever the diminutive Chris Rainey gives up in size, he makes up with immeasurable confidence.

The Steelers rookie running back sprinted onto the practice field at St. Vincent College on Friday, eager to prove he belongs in the NFL. He wanted to brush aside any doubts or lingering questions about him fitting into the Steelers' redesigned offense.

“I'm prepared for everything,” Rainey said. “I've been going through the playbook every day.”

Mostly, the fifth-round draft pick from Florida wants to prove he's his own man with a unique skill set. He isn't New Orleans' Darren Sproles or Minnesota's Percy Harvin.

“I hear those stories about my size all the time,” he said. “People compare me to Percy (Harvin), but it doesn't matter how much they compare me to other people.

“It's all about speed. And that's what separates me from the other guys. It's just a slow brew right now, but it'll come in time.”

However, at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, he can live with the Sproles comparison.

“Whatever you see in Darren Sproles, that's what you'll see in me,” said Rainey, who likens his style to the Saints' playmaker. “But I'm still Chris Rainey.”

Of course, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and running backs coach Kirby Wilson are hoping the speedy, versatile Rainey can be as productive as his idol.

Isaac Redman, who likely will get the starting nod at running back for the injured Rashard Mendenhall for the regular-season opener in Denver, is confident Rainey can deliver.

“You can't crown anybody with just jerseys and helmets on,” Redman said. “When the shoulder pads come on, we'll see who has or doesn't have it.”

Rainey has the look, at least. He covers the 40 in 4.4 seconds and possesses a plethora of open-field moves that could make him a big-play threat, particularly on special teams.

“I love special teams, and that's where I really want to contribute,” said Rainey, who led the Gators with 31 receptions in 2011. “I know I have to play special teams just to get the ball.

“I want defensive players to say, ‘(Dang), this is a good running back.' I want everyone to have confidence they can play me. I want to do everything well.”

Rainey likely will get a chance to prove himself during the preseason. He'll be vying for time with Baron Batch, John Clay and Jonathan Dwyer.

“There's always an opportunity for everybody and anybody,” Rainey added. “When you get that opportunity, you've got to take advantage of it. I'm ready to take advantage of every opportunity.”

Redman expects Haley will test Rainey in the slot and in screen situations. The running backs weren't involved much in the passing game last season.

Rainey is keenly aware of this. The Steelers, though, would have to change their habits for Rainey to become an integral part of the passing game.

“There are multiple things he can do, and it helps that he has great hands,” said Redman, who is more impressed with Rainey's knowledge of the playbook than his speed. “He can definitely stretch the field.”

Redman, though, cautions Rainey not to get too far ahead of himself during training camp.

“It's all about getting young guys to understand this is a long process,” Redman said. “I remember when I came in. If I didn't have guys like (former Steelers running back) Willie Parker to keep me squared away, I don't know where I would be today. I want to take that knowledge and dish it out to him.”

For now, coach Mike Tomlin is interested in keeping Rainey healthy. So, he kept him out of Saturday's blitz-protection drill.

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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