The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Pro

August 3, 2013

LaRod feeling right at home

LATROBE — At 5-foot-7, LaRod Stephens-Howling does not feel out of place during some of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ more size-oriented training camp drills.

The running back has held his own during short-yardage and goal-line exercises and has looked right at home in “backs-on-backers” protection drills.

It has helped that playing for the Steelers has made Stephens-Howling feel like he’s home – even if he didn’t join the team until just this past offseason.

A Johnstown native who played at Pitt, Stephens-Howling is awash in familiarity during his first season with Pittsburgh. His hometown is about 45 minutes from the training camp site at St. Vincent College, and Stephens-Howling shared a practice facility with the Steelers while in college at Pitt. Even his new home stadium, Heinz Field, also is his old home stadium. Pitt and the Steelers share the venue.

“It’s a great feeling – a homecoming feeling,” Stephens-Howling said between workouts Saturday. “But after all that excitement gets out of the way, we’re still at training camp and we’re working hard to get a job on the 53. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, that’s it.”

Stephens-Howling’s roster spot would appear to be safe, even in a crowded backfield. A fifth-year pro, he was brought in to compete for third-down-back and kick-returning roles.

Both are tasks he showed a proficiency for over four seasons (57 career games) with the Arizona Cardinals. A seventh-round pick in 2009, Stephens-Howling has amassed 4,067 yards and three touchdowns in the kick return game over his career in addition to seven touchdowns off plays from scrimmage.

“He’s definitely given us some versatility,” said Isaac Redman, who broke last season’s camp as the starting running back. “He can catch, and he’s pretty quick. When you get him out in space he’s hard to tackle. You’re not going to catch him from behind.”

Speed has always been the hallmark for Stephens-Howling, who led Pitt in rushing his freshman and sophomore seasons but backed up future NFL All-Pro LeSean McCoy late in his college career.

Pure speed is what has made him such an attractive option as a returner. On offense, while lack of size has shied NFL teams away from considering him as an every-down runner, an ability to catch balls out of the backfield helps make Stephens-Howling an ideal third-down back.

Lacking prototypical options at both kick returner and third-down back after last year’s 8-8 season, the Steelers signed Stephens-Howling as a free agent in April.

“When I visited the Steelers, they talked about the opportunities they had at third-down back stuff and in return,” Stephens-Howling said. “It looked good for me to come here and have the opportunity to compete for those jobs. At the same time it’s closer to home; I’ve been across the country for four years, so it’s nice to be closer to home.”

Stephens-Howling’s father took him to the Steelers’ annual training camp night practice at Greater Latrobe High School when he was a kid.

While in college, Stephens-Howling remembers frequently watching the Steelers practice from a window in the practice facility Pitt and the Steelers share.

Although he has yet to appear in a regular-season game at Heinz Field, his first preseason game as a professional was there in 2009.

Just four years later, he’s the player at his position on the Steelers with the most NFL tenure.

“He’s brought a lot of experience and helps out a lot already,” said Jonathan Dwyer, Pittsburgh’s leading rusher last season. “He’s having a great camp so far. He brings a lot of exciting things to the table in the passing game and the running game.

“Don’t let his size fool you; he’s a tough guy. He doesn’t shy away form contact. He’s not scared of anybody.”

Stephens-Howling proved that Saturday when he was given the ball during short-yardage and goal-line drills. During one goal-line play he absorbed one of the most vicious hits of the practice, protecting his quarterback on a touchdown pass.

During individual blocking drills earlier this week, coach Mike Tomlin audibly enjoyed how the 185-pound running back was frustrating linebackers who often had 6 inches or more and at least 50 pounds on Stephens-Howling.

“Blocking’s something I work on, and I try to get better every day,” Stephens-Howling said. “I’m definitely not satisfied with my blocking right now, but as the games go on I’m going to get better.”

In order to ensure a role in the backfield on third downs, he knows he’ll have to prove he can block as much as he will need to show he can catch. A career-high 17 of Stephens-Howling’s 56 career receptions came last season. Coaches have talked about getting him the ball in space to take advantage of his speed.

“He’s fast and he can also run the ball up the middle,” Redman said. “Mostly, though, he’s a good guy – a genuinely good person – and that’s what we needed in our running back room. Personality-wise, he clicks right with us.”

The hope is he will on the field, too.

Notes: The Steelers signed veteran OT D’Anthony Batiste on Saturday and placed OT Nik Embernate on the waived/ injured list. The 31-year-old Batiste had 10 of his 14 career starts last season for the Cardinals. He has appeared in 37 games over seven NFL seasons for six teams. The 6-4, 314-pound Batiste opened last season as the Cardinals’ starting left tackle and adds to tackle group that lacked depth behind projected starters Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert. Embernate is an undrafted guard from San Diego State who sustained a knee injury earlier this week. ... Among the myriad players who sat out Saturday’s practice for injury or personal reasons were TE Matt Spaeth, DE Brett Keisel, LB Jarvis Jones, RB Le’Veon Bell, CB Cortez Allen, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, CB Terry Hawthorne, LB Jason Worilds and LB Lawrence Timmons. “I’m not going to get into the details on (minor injuries),” Tomlin said. “Many of these guys will be working their way back here in the next 24-48 hours.” ... Tomlin ran another physical practice, saying the abundance of youth on the offensive and defensive lines has necessitated a camp with more live tackling and contact.

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