Former Panther Stephens-Howling happy to be a Steeler now

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It's a daily occurrence during the summer and fall at the UPMC South Side training facility the Steelers and Pitt Panthers share. The professional players conduct their practice on one field, and the collegiate players come out to get a sneak peek before their practice begins on the adjacent fields.

Some sit on benches, taking their time to lace up their cleats, or leisurely tape their wrists. Others keep moving and slowly walk to their workout, their necks craned to catch a glimpse of the action.

LaRod Stephens-Howling was no different when he donned a Pitt uniform from 2005-08. He was a freshman when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL and a senior when they won Super Bowl XLIII, and he was never shy about stopping and staring at the pros.

"I used to see them out there," said Stephens-Howling, who signed a free agent contract with the Steelers in April and will compete for a roster spot this summer as a reserve running back and kick returner. "It reminds you why you're doing what you do at the college level. It was always my dream to play in the NFL. To see those guys work every day, you remind yourself why you're working so hard."

Stephens-Howling realized his dream when was drafted by Arizona in the seventh round of the 2009 draft. After four seasons with the Cardinals, where he developed into a top kick returner and a quality third-down back, the Johnstown native decided to come closer to home when he saw an opportunity open with the Steelers.

"When I came in for my visit, they let me know the opportunity they had on third downs and they let me know special teams is a big reason why I'm here," Stephens-Howling said. "They let me know right off the bat that both things will come into account when it comes to the roster."

The Steelers are looking to fill both positions after they released Chris Rainey one week after last season ended, on the same day he was arrested and charged with simple battery. Rainey was eighth in the NFL in kickoff return yardage as a rookie, totaling 1,035 yards on 39 returns for a 26.5 average. He also had 102 yards rushing and 60 yards receiving when he played on offense, mostly in third-down situations.

Stephens-Howling was one of the top kickoff return men in the NFL in 2009 and 2010. In his rookie season, Stephens-Howling was seventh in the league with 1,257 yards and one touchdown. The next season he led the league with 1,547 yards and two touchdowns. Only Leon Washington of Seattle had more kickoff return touchdowns with three.

The past two seasons, Stephens-Howling eased off special teams as he became more involved in the Arizona offense, but he is looking forward to returning kicks on a full-time basis again with the Steelers if he wins a roster spot.

"I love it so much because you have the freedom," he said. "It's kind of like being a kid playing in the backyard. You have those guys blocking in front of and you're just reading those blocks."

When given the chance, Stephens-Howling was productive as a running back, too. He started five games last season and led the team in rushing with 356 yards and four touchdowns. He also had 17 receptions for 106 yards. In 2011, he had 234 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

"I want to do the same things here, get a mix in on offense, change the pace on offense and do the special teams," he said. "Any way I can contribute to the team will be good."

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley liked the idea of using Rainey, a fast and shifty back, in certain situations. According to Haley, Stephens-Howling could fit nicely into that role.

"He's a guy that's got a bunch of carries under his belt," Haley said. "He's a veteran with a little different skill set than some of the other guys."

Haley never coached Stephens-Howling in Arizona -- he left after the 2008 season to become the head coach in Kansas City -- but the Cardinals kept many of his principles after he left. Stephens-Howling spent the past month getting used to the way the Steelers do things in organized team activities and minicamp.

"Some things are the same, but there is a lot of terminology that is different," Stephens-Howling said. "That's the thing you have to pick up, certain little tweaks that weren't the same in Arizona. That's the hard part right now."

The easy part will come in September when his family drives an hour to games instead of taking a cross-country flight to see him play in Arizona.

"It feels good to be back, to be closer to the family," he said. "You always have that support in the Pittsburgh and Johnstown area. This is home. ... My family had a hard time adjusting wearing the red and white. Now we can get them back in the black and yellow, so it's all good."

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Ray Fittipaldo: and Twitter @rayfitt1.


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