by Will Graves
LATROBE, Pa. (AP)—John Clay kept waiting for the phone to ring during the NFL Draft in April.
One round passed. Then a day. Then three.
The former Wisconsin running back never saw his name pop up on the ticker through seven excruciating rounds and 224 picks.
|IMPRESSIVE ROOKIE—Steelers running back Baron Batch (35) runs the ball during training camp in Latrobe, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
He didn’t anticipate not getting selected, not after running for more than 2,500 yards and 32 touchdowns during his sophomore and junior seasons at Wisconsin, his 6-foot-1, 248-pound frame serving as a battering ram behind the team’s massive offensive line.
He left school a year early, figuring he was a lock. He wasn’t and going undrafted hurt. In a way, Clay says it may be the best thing that happened to his career.
Otherwise, he wouldn’t be in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the “perfect” place for him to prove the doubters wrong.
“You definitely want to use that as motivation,” Clay said. “You want to show that you can play at this level.”
Playing in the NFL and staying in the NFL are two different things. The defending AFC champions appear to be just about set at running back. Rashard Mendenhall is firmly entrenched at the top after consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Isaac Redman and third-down specialist Mewelde Moore are next.
After that, things get murky.
There appears to be room for a rookie to make some headway, although the newcomer creating the biggest buzz during the first week of camp isn’t Clay but Baron Batch.
Though Batch’s college numbers were ordinary next to Clay’s, he did manage to get drafted. The Steelers chose Batch in the final round, intrigued by his versatility.
Batch ran for 816 yards and five touchdowns last year while adding 32 receptions and three more scores. He’s comfortable operating in a complicated offense thanks to former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s complex attack.
He’s held his own while competing in the “backs on backers” drill that pits a running back against a hard-charging linebacker coming on the blitz.
Still, Batch isn’t exactly ready to call himself the rookie to beat. Sure, he’s looked good in one-on-one drills. However, the game is played with Batch and 10 teammates working as a unit. He knows he’s not as sharp as he needs to be when it comes to learning where to go and when to get there.
“You guys see that stuff, ‘God, he did good in backs on backers’ but to me stuff like that doesn’t really matter much because if I get in team and I miss on a blitz, that’s all it takes to get a quarterback hurt,” Batch said.
Batch understands that because of his size—he’s just 210 pounds and he played in a system in college that relied heavily on throwing the ball—he’s considered soft.
“The fans that saw me in college, they would say, ‘He runs hard, he’s tough,’” Batch said. “I’m just going to show (the Steelers) what they saw when they drafted me.”
What the coaches have seen from Batch is an ability to stick his nose in uncomfortable places. He’s been eager to contribute on special teams and aggressively worked between the tackles during a goal-line competition on Saturday.
The exercise pits the goal-line offense against the goal-line defense. The offense gets a point if it scores a touchdown from two yards out. The defense gets a point if it stops the ball short of the end zone.
Coach Mike Tomlin likes to play the series best-of-seven. Batch and Clay both had opportunities to show what they can do.
Batch made it to the end zone at least once, while Clay was stuffed at the doorstep on the final play.
It was the “welcome to the NFL” moment for both.
Though he didn’t come through on the last snap, in truth there was little room for him to maneuver. Clay, who ran a painfully slow 4.8 40-yard dash before the draft, has displayed nimble feet at times.
He spent the NFL lockout trying to get into “football shape,” and though he hasn’t lost weight, he’d like to think he’s redistributed it a little better.
Clay understands he’ll never be confused with a breakaway back. He’s hoping to get the tough yards he’s always gotten.
His teammates want to see it happen. Moore said he’s hoping for a glimpse of “that Wisconsin style of running” from Clay.
“You know, I just want to pound it, pound it, pound it and get that home run in the end,” Clay said. “If I keep working at it, I’ll get a shot.”