Kevin Gorman: Steelers' Jaylen Samuels ready to be 'true running back'
With James Conner out with a sprained ankle, the Pittsburgh Steelers are turning to a rookie who attended the NFL Scouting Combine as a tight end, refers to his position as “true running back” and never started one game at true running back in four years of college football.
If you think starting Sunday at the Oakland Raiders sounds daunting to Jaylen Samuels, you would be stunned by his stoicism. If you think Samuels never imagined himself as a starting running back in the NFL, especially in his first season, you would be wrong.
“I definitely imagined it because I knew I wasn’t a tight end in the National Football League,” said Samuels, a 6-foot, 225-pounder from N.C. State whom the Steelers selected with their second pick in the fifth round (No. 165 overall). “I imagined myself doing what I’m doing.”
That Samuels is taking his first NFL start in stride is no surprise to his Steelers teammates, especially after the way he responded to replacing Conner in the fourth quarter of the 33-30 loss to the Chargers on Sunday at Heinz Field. On the play after Conner suffered a sprained ankle, Samuels scored the tying touchdown on a 10-yard pass.
“You don’t see much (emotion) from him,” Steelers left guard Ramon Foster said. “He’s not up. He’s not down. (Heck), he got a touchdown, and I didn’t see much out of him. That’s very encouraging, the way he’s not excited just to have the opportunity. He’s a guy who just wants to get the job done.”
The Steelers aren’t asking Samuels to do it alone. He is expected to share carries with Stevan Ridley, a sixth-year veteran who has 27 career starts and more than 3,000 career yards. But they are counting on Samuels to meet the standard set by Conner and his All-Pro predecessor, Le’Veon Bell.
That it has come to this is on the Steelers. They took a risk by playing hardball with Bell on guaranteed money and the franchise tag, and he depleted their depth by electing to sit out the season instead. That put them in a spot where Samuels could be one injury away from starting.
The closest he came to that at N.C. State was against Clemson as a sophomore tight end when starter Matt Dayes injured his toe and Samuels started the second half of a 56-41 loss in 2015. Samuels turned a pass in the flat into a 40-yard touchdown, and had a 66-yard run to the 1-yard line to set up another score. He finished with six carries for 65 yards and eight receptions for 74 yards.
The Steelers would take those statistics in a heartbeat.
So would Samuels, who never had more than 12 carries in a game in college. But he set a school record for career receptions (202) and finished second in school history with 47 touchdowns, including 45 in his final 39 games.
Samuels is the first to say that he has a nose for the end zone, especially on the perimeter in a race for the pylon. His motto: make the first defender miss, and then make something happen.
“That’s just what I do: I score touchdowns,” Samuels said. “I’ve been scoring touchdowns all my life, throughout college and high school and now I’m trying to take it here to the National Football League. Once I get in there and my number is called, I’m going in there to make the best out of it and make the opportunities count.”
Samuels has done that more as a receiver than a runner for the Steelers. He has a dozen carries this season for 31 yards and a pedestrian 2.6 yards per clip, but seven receptions for 54 yards and two touchdowns. Samuels has shown he can be a bruising inside runner and elusive in open space, but he doesn’t want to be compared to Conner.
“I just don’t want to be portrayed as one type of runner,” Samuels said. “I want to be able to do a lot of different things, being able to be a pounder or a speed guy — being able to pound between the tackles and show speed on the edges — so whatever presents itself, I’m going to try to go out there, put the ball in the right spot and try to help my team.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin expressed “excitement” in Samuels surpassing Ridley as the third-down back to the point that he was involved in special passing packages before Conner went down. Samuels expects to remain the focal point of those pass plays with some added responsibility in the run game.
If there is something that should give the Steelers confidence that an unheralded rookie running back can make a splash, they need look no further than their past two games. Denver undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries against the Steelers, and Chargers seventh-round pick Justin Jackson had eight carries for 63 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
Those performances give Samuels confidence that he can do the same. Not that confidence was ever a concern for the Steelers rookie, who believes he was always meant to be a true running back.
“It’s a heck of an opportunity,” Samuels said. “I just want to cherish the opportunity and make the best out of it. Just to play true running back in the National Football League, that’s tough and it’s hard, but if you come well-prepared like I’m going to come well-prepared for this Sunday, you should have a good outcome.”
Just like Samuels imagined.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.