Steelers Eye Talented Pair
Montee Ball TD maker (Langenfield/USA TODAY Sport)
By Jim Wexell
Posted Feb 24, 2013
INDIANAPOLIS – The Steelers are taking an interest in two of the most well-known, albeit underrated, draft prospects here at the NFL Combine.
They’ve scheduled formal interviews with all-time NCAA touchdown maker Montee (MON-tay) Ball and USC’s all-time receiving leader Robert Woods.
Both players fit the Steelers’ early-round M.O. of durability, production at a high level of competition, and character.
Both players figure to be drafted in the second and/or third rounds.
The idea that Woods might last until pick 49, where the Steelers are scheduled to select in the second round, would’ve been considered preposterous last year. Woods was named PAC-10 Freshman of the year in 2010 and then erupted as a sophomore in 2011 with 112 catches for 1,292 yards and 15 touchdowns.
But he – and his team, for that matter – regressed in 2012, when Woods caught 73 passes at a career-low average of 11.1 yards per catch. He was QB Matt Barkley’s second option behind sophomore Marquise Lee, and at one point Woods came off as frustrated by the lack of attention. He explained Friday that wasn’t his intention.
“That whole phrase in that interview got mis-worded,” Woods said. “I had said that if Coach (Lane) Kiffin's game plan was to get me to come back, then he probably would have got me the ball more. But his game plan wasn’t to get me the ball; his game plan was to win football games.”
Kiffin has nothing but praise for Woods. He told the Orange County Register this week that “Robert has a true love for the game. He loves to practice … which is not always the case with kids. Robert’s old school that way.”
Woods came off as intelligent and earnest at the podium, but a 6-0, 201-pound receiver, who’s not expected to run a blazing 40 today, can expect to last until late in the first round, at the earliest. However, his strengths – (and he did average 5.9 on punts and 24.8 on kickoffs as USC’s primary return man) – have the Steelers interested.
“I’d say my knowledge of the game – I know every position – my route-running ability, and my hands,” Woods ticked off. “My speed, my route-running ability, just my knowledge of the game. I feel like if I know the playbook early, I can come in right away and make an impact.”
Woods hopes to some day be compared to Reggie Wayne. Ball, the ultra-productive running back from Wisconsin, hopes to some day draw comparisons to Curtis Martin, the former Pitt back. Martin, a 5-11, 210-pound Hall of Famer, was drafted in the third round in 1995, pick No. 74.
Could Ball, who was measured here at 5-10½, 214, last until the Steelers’ third-round pick, No. 79? Even though he holds NCAA records for rushing (77) and overall (83) touchdowns?
Most experts thinke so. While Martin was knocked for durability issues, Ball is being dinged for possibly having too much wear on his body. He’s carried 924 times for 5,140 yards in four seasons at Wisconsin. In his last two years of St. Louis-area high school ball, he gained over 5,000 yards and scored 71 touchdowns.
Scouts also worry about Ball’s long speed – in spite of his 5.6-yard-per-carry career average at Wisconsin – and his receiving skills. Ball caught only 59 passes since he began alternating with John Clay, a former Steeler, in 2009.
“This past season there’s not a lot of film on me catching the football,” said Ball. “But the season when we had Russell Wilson, there’s a lot of tape out there that really shows I can expand the offense.”
That was Ball’s best season. With Wilson at QB in 2011, Ball rushed for 1,923 yards, scored 39 touchdowns, and caught 24 passes for 306 yards and 6 touchdowns, all career highs. He considered coming out for the draft then, but didn’t like the third-round grade the Draft Advisory Committee gave him. So he returned, and was hit with a trespassing citation in May for not leaving a porch at a party when asked, and was then assaulted near campus in August.
“You live and you learn,” he said. “I learned that I live my life in a fishbowl the hard way. The bottom line is I learned my lesson and moved on from it.”
And Ball’s looking forward to showing that growth, along with his obvious intelligence, to teams such as the Steelers, who are looking for a three-down, bell-cow type of back.
“I can apply my intelligence to the playbook and to the game, which gives me an advantage,” Ball said. “Obviously I also want to show them how well I can move on the field and with the football in my hands and how well I can catch the ball out of the backfield.”
What distinguishes Ball from the rest of the running backs who’ve ever played college football is his ability to score touchdowns. Counting his last two years of high school, Ball’s scored 154 touchdowns in six seasons.
“It's my desire to finish drives with a touchdown instead of a field goal," he explained.
But every running back wants that. What makes Ball different?
“The drive I have,” he said.
And no one in the room doubted him.