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Expect much from Mendenhall

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The great Eric Dickerson rushed for a NFL rookie record 1,808 yards and 18 touchdowns in 1983.

The Vikings' Adrian Peterson, a modern version of Dickerson, set the single-game rushing record with 296 yards last season while becoming the first rookie in league history to tally two 200-yard rushing games.

Three running backs were selected in the first round of this year's draft. Steelers rookie Rashard Mendenhall, the No. 23 overall pick, said he understands the lofty demands expected from his position.

"It's all reaction,'' Mendenhall said. "There's a hole, you run through it.''

First-round running backs and big plays go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Since 2003, 13 running backs have gone in the first round. Five produced 1,000-yard seasons, six had 200-plus carries and seven rushed for at least five touchdowns.

In 2007, the two running backs selected in the first round enjoyed monster seasons.

Peterson carried the ball 238 times for 1,341 yards and 12 touchdowns. Marshawn Lynch carried 280 times for 1,115 yards and seven touchdowns.

Other than Cleveland tackle Joe Thomas, no other offensive player taken in the first round had a bigger impact than Peterson and Lynch.

Two-time Pro Bowler Willie Parker returns from a broken leg as the No. 1 running back, but it goes without saying the Steelers didn't change their draft plans when Mendenhall unexpectedly fell into their laps so he could be Parker's caddie.

If Mendenhall doesn't play right away, it'll be because he's injured.

Compared with other positions, the learning curve for a rookie running back is more like a straight line, making it easier to contribute early.

"It's easier than a quarterback trying to pick up protections and plays and read defenses,'' Mendenhall said. "It's a different kind of thing.''

Asked about the night-and-day difference between pro and college football, Mendenhall smiled and shrugged.

"It takes you back to high school going to college,'' said Mendenhall, who started one season at Illinois. "It's just what you think it is. Everybody's big, everybody's fast, everybody's talented.''

Based on early returns from voluntary workouts that concluded Thursday, Mendenhall, in the venacular, is who we thought he was.

His impressive blend of power and speed can take your breath away.

Not only do the Steelers covet Mendenhall's ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield, they also worked him out returning kickoffs because of how quickly he reaches top speed.

Mendenhall is a playmaker. Even when he's not in the backfield, the Steelers want to give him an opportunity to make plays.

"I've got a lot of confidence,'' Mendenhall said, "but you've got to learn this playbook and this game.

"Each day's practice you get more confidence. The more you do it, the better you are.''

Expect to see plenty of Mendenhall in 2008.

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