Pittsburgh's acquisition of ex-Illinois running back Rashard Mendenhall in the first round of April's NFL draft was part of the reason why the Steelers recently decided to part ways with fellow runner Najeh Davenport. Further, the offseason pickup of free agent Mewelde Moore made Davenport’s ability to return kicks somewhat obsolete; after all, Moore is also an adept returner and a viable backup option at halfback. Still, there was another reason why Pittsburgh decided to drop Davenport, who rushed for 763 yards and seven touchdowns for the club over the course of two seasons.
That reason? Second-year running back Gary Russell, whom the Steelers didn't want to part with. Russell has a lack of experience, having garnered just 21 yards on seven carries during his pro career, but the Steelers were impressed during the 2007 preseason with two things: First, Russell's power; secondly, his willingness to learn. Moreover, they liked the way he finished runs, finished blocks, and generally improved during the course of last season.
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Beyond his preseason performance from last summer, however, is the fact that Russell showed the ability to play very well at the highest level of college football; as a sophomore with the Minnesota Gophers, he rushed for 1,130 yards and scored 19 touchdowns. Even more impressive is that he split time with current Patriots running back Laurence Maroney while doing so, adding to the intrigue.
So how did a guy like this not get drafted? Well, that’s the other side of the coin. Simply put, Russell flunked out of school after that great season he had with the Gophers.
“It was me just being lazy, immature,” said the 21-year-old Russell.
Adding to the negative side of things is the fact that the 5-foot-11, 225-pounder showed up at the combine overweight and only ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash. But the bottom line is that Pittsburgh has seen players with little fanfare turn into stars. Their starting running back, Willie Parker, serves as a prime example of that. And they believe that Russell can be developed into a top-notch back in Parker's mold.
It’s hard to argue with the Steelers, who have proven over the years that they can find diamonds in the rough.