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Old 10-23-2010, 12:10 AM   #1
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Default Mendenhall grows into complete NFL running back

Mendenhall grows into complete NFL running back
By John Harris
Saturday, October 23, 2010

Rashard Mendenhall's production this season tells a story of high risk and reward.

His ability to handle a heavy workload during quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's four-game suspension changed the Steelers from a passing team to a running team. Mendenhall is averaging an NFL-most 23.2 carries, and he's nursing a shoulder contusion than he said won't prevent him from starting Sunday at Miami.

The quick start has featured large doses of a back who previously ran with more finesse than force but now consistently hits the hole with power.

"This year, you see the guy they drafted: the dynamic speed, the ability to cut and bounce and hit outside, and then also the great cut-back ability," Cleveland defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said of Mendenhall, who rushed 27 times for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Browns last week. "He's a tremendous football player like he was in college."

Mendenhall started only one season at Illinois. In 2007, he set school records with 1,682 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground.

"I used to call him 'Raw-sheed.' I said, 'We need you to run angry,'" said first-year Youngstown State coach Eric Wolford, the running-game coordinator at Illinois during Mendenhall's record-setting season. "He does things that little running backs do sticking his foot in the ground, making you miss but he's a very powerful runner."

Mendenhall has found his comfort zone this season. He has rushed for 495 yards (a 4.3 average) and five touchdowns. Ball security is no longer a concern: He hasn't fumbled in 116 carries.

"It all revolves around your comfort level," Mendenhall said. "When you look at rookie running backs coming into the league, they're not fully themselves. They're trying to figure it out. You have to redefine your NFL personality.

"In college, I was more comfortable. I'm starting to get back to that. With experience, you become more and more like yourself. I know what works in certain situations. I can attack defenses more instead of reacting."

Woolford said Mendenhall has greater upside than other running backs selected in the 2007 draft because he has less wear and tear on his body. Baltimore's Ray Rice (910 at Rutgers), Chicago's Matt Forte (833 at Tulane) and Tennessee's Chris Johnson (624 at East Carolina) had significantly more carries than Mendenhall (388) in college. That trend has continued in the NFL, where Mendenhall has 371 fewer carries than Johnson, 277 fewer than Forte and 99 fewer than Rice.

"He's just starting to come into his own, and he doesn't have a lot of hits on him," Wolford said. "He's a durable guy. He's well-built. Structurally, he can handle it."

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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