Mendenhall ready for game action
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer
dlolley@observer-reporter.com

LATROBE - The Steelers were surprised when running back Rashard Mendenhall fell to them with the 23rd pick in the NFL draft.

Rated by some publications as the top running back in the draft, Mendenhall, coming off a record-setting junior season at the University of Illinois, was the fourth running back selected.

Since training camp began at Saint Vincent College, Mendenhall looks worthy of the selection, even if running back wasn't a pressing need for the Steelers. Mendenhall has shown he can run, catch passes and return kicks.

Of course, that's just in practice.

The Steelers get their first look at Mendenhall in a game situations Friday night, when they open preseason play against Philadelphia at Heinz Field.

"He's going to tote the football and we expect big things from him as I'm sure he does from himself," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "We'll see what he looks like."

Tomlin will play starting running back Willie Parker for one offensive series before turning to the 21-year-old Mendenhall.

The 5-11, 225-pound Mendenhall is working extensively with every phase of the offense in his efforts to be Parker's backup. In addition to working as the primary runner, Mendenhall could see time on third downs, in the short-yardage package and returning kickoffs.

But Mendenhall, who set a school record at Illinois last year with 1,999 total yards, is ready for the challenge.

"I was the everything-back, third-downs, short-yardage, I was in there," said Mendenhall. "Nothing is new to me."

That doesn't mean things aren't a little more difficult in the NFL.

Mendenhall had five tries against the first-team defense to score from outside the 1-yard-line in goal-line drills on Sunday and Tuesday. He was shut out in three attempts Sunday, but reached the end zone once Tuesday.

"You want to get in there, but it's a learning experience," said Mendenhall, who rushed for 17 touchdowns a year ago.

"It was more fast. That's what the NFL is. ... Just look at (Steelers linebacker) James Harrison. I don't think you'll find many college guys looking like that."

Tomlin said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would play one series, and the starting offensive line would likely play the entire first quarter.

Veteran Charlie Batch replace Roethlisberger, followed by fifth-round draft pick Dennis Dixon and Mike Potts.

Odds and end zones

In addition to nose tackle Casey Hampton and safety Troy Polamalu, both on the Physically Unable to Perform list, Tomlin ruled out tight end Cody Boyd and safety Anthony Smith for the game. ... Smith, who returned to practice Wednesday afternoon for the first time in more than a week, drew the ire of coaches when he laid out wide receiver Hines Ward during seven-on-seven drills. "I'm not going to comment on it," said Ward. "You saw what happened. Make your own judgments." ... Sean Mahan will start at center. Tomlin said Justin Hartwig, who is battling Mahan for the center job, will start next week's preseason game against Buffalo in Toronto. The regular season starter will be announced after the second preseason game.