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Steelers finally get personal look at Mendenhall

| Friday, May 2, 2008

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians will get his first up-close and personal look at running back Rashard Mendenhall today when the Steelers open minicamp.

He can only hope the Steelers' first-round draft pick looks as good in person as he does on tape.

Arians probably hasn't stopped smiling since the Steelers took Mendenhall with the 23rd overall pick of the draft this past Saturday and then selected wide receiver Limas Sweed in the second round.

One of the many reasons why he is ecstatic about adding Mendenhall to a running game that ranked third in the NFL last season: the Steelers don't anticipate the former Illinois star having as steep learning curve as most rookie running backs even though he is just 20 years old.

"(Steelers running backs coach) Kirby Wilson and I both felt he might have been the most-ready-to-play guy of the top running backs because he can pass protect," Arians said of Mendenhall, who was the fourth running back taken in the draft. "That's usually the hardest thing for the young running backs coming out of college is having to block Joey Porter off the edge or those great linebackers they face one-on-one in pass protection."

It is too early to say what role Mendenhall, who rushed for 1,681 and 17 touchdowns this past season at Illinois, will carve out in the crowded Steelers' backfield.

Puttin' on the pads

The Steelers open minicamp today at their South Side facility. They will practice twice today, two times Saturday and once Sunday. The team also has 12 OTA practices scheduled for later this month and also in June.

He is expected to complement Willie Parker, who was leading the NFL in rushing before breaking his leg this past December. Arians said the Steelers will also "explore" ways to get Mendenhall and Parker on the field together.

"We'll develop a small package," Arians said, "just to have another package."

If the Steelers are excited that Mendenhall should be able to contribute immediately, they are also comfortable that the 5-9, 224-pounder will be able to handle the reduced role he'll have playing behind Parker.

"He came in here the same way at Illinois," Illini coach Ron Zook said of Mendenhall, who didn't become the team's feature back until this past season. "The first two years he was behind some pretty good backs, and he had a chance to learn the system and learn the game. (The situation in Pittsburgh) will give him an opportunity to learn what it's like to be a pro. I think it will help him."

Mendenhall and the rest of the players in his draft class will experience what it is like to be a professional during the minicamp that runs through Sunday.

The camp is mandatory, and undrafted free agents that the Steelers signed earlier this week also will be among those that take part in the practices.

When asked what he will be looking at in regard to the rookies, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "Their level of conditioning, how much information they are capable of taking in in such a short period of time. Their ability to get on a moving train if you will. It's a mental toughness exercise more than anything."

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