Kent State's Dri Archer can prove big things come in small packages

Since the beginning of their Super Bowl years, the Steelers have had several players from Kent State who performed like super heroes.

Linebacker James Harrison was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 2008 and turned in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history with his 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals.

And Jack Lambert, a second-round draft choice in 1974, was a skinny-legged, gap-toothed linebacker who former teammate Joe Greene once said "was so mean he doesn't even like himself." All Lambert did was end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest linebackers in history.

But a comic-strip superhero?

They have one now from Kent State, and his name is Dri Archer, who doesn't have the size to be a real-life superhero but certainly has the lightning-fast speed that almost isn't human.

Archer was depicted in a comic strip as a college football superhero last season as part of the school's publicity campaign to promote their under-sized running back/return specialist for the Heisman Trophy. The comic strip -- called "The Archer" -- was drawn by Chuck Ayers, a Kent State alum.

The Steelers are merely hoping Archer can come to the rescue of their return units and be faster than a speeding bullet in their offense.

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"We said Ryan Shazier is a playmaker on defense," coach Mike Tomlin said. "You can say the same thing about this guy on offense. Regardless of position, he's a playmaker."

Archer wasn't just the fastest player in the draft after running an official 4.26 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in February. He was also one of the most electrifying and productive, compiling nearly 5,000 all-purpose yards and scoring 40 touchdowns in his Kent State career.

Four of those touchdowns came on kick returns, including three in an incredible 2012 junior season when he scored 23 total touchdowns, averaged an NCAA Division I-best 9 yards per carry and was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player.

"You see how electric he is, but it's the type of kid he is," Kent State coach Paul Haynes said. "I think that's probably what attracted coach Tomlin and the general manager to him. He's a very focused kid. There's no issues off the field. I know that's important to them. They got the total package."

The Steelers were so enamored with Archer's speed and return ability they used their third-round selection (97th overall) on a situational player who is a faster version of Chris Rainey, a fifth-rounder in 2012.

"Return guys can change the game," said general manager Kevin Colbert. "In my mind, return guys are starters. When you get guys like that who change the game, they are special. His kick-return ability is special."

A legitimate runner

Kent State used Archer (5 feet 8, 173 pounds) in a variety of different roles last season after he decided to return for his senior year, including lining him in the slot to get him more in open space.

Archer, though, was the focal point of every defensive coordinator in the Mid-American Conference, and he did not have the same kind of season he did in 2012 when he rushed for 1,429 yards and 16 touchdowns and led Division I-A averaging 8.99 yards per rush.

"To me, he was a bona fide running back, and if I had to do it all over last year I would have never flexed him out," Haynes said over the phone Saturday. "If you looked at all his big plays, they come from him in the backfield. He has great patience and great vision, which every great running back has. It's a bona fide way to get him the ball fast."

Archer caught 99 passes for 1,194 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons with the Golden Flashes, leading some scouts to project him as a slot receiver in the NFL. But Haynes disagrees.

"You can get him on the jet sweeps and do some things like that," Haynes said. "We sat there and tried to make him more marketable so people can see he can do those types of things. But I definitely see him as a running back."

The Steelers thought they had the luxury of drafting a change-of-pace back after they signed LeGarrette Blount in free agency to back up Le'Veon Bell. They also considered Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas (5-9, 174), who has been compared to former West Virginia star Tavon Austin, but decided on Archer because of his exceptional ability to return kicks.

"We're going to find ways to get this guy involved," said running backs coach James Saxon. "We have a couple great backs already with Le'Veon and LeGarrette. He's just going to accentuate those guys."

Speed to burn

Archer, one of the best sprinters in Florida in high school, predicted he would break the 40-yard dash record of 4.24 held by New York Jets running back Chris Johnson at the NFL combine. He said that because his personal best in the 40 was 4.21.

But Archer just missed, running a 4.26 that was easily the best among all running backs this year in Indianapolis but still not faster than Johnson's record time.

It wasn't just Archer's speed that impressed the Steelers; it was the manner in which he ran. He needed just 18 strides to run the 40 -- the same amount of steps as Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, who is 6-5.

"To do 18 steps in the 40 is very unusual," Saxon said. "You don't see that often. He's a long strider for a short guy."

When Saxon saw Archer do 20 reps of the 225-pound bench press, he became even more convinced. For comparison, Steelers left tackle Mike Adams did only 19 reps on the bench at the 2012 combine.

"When he got on his back and did it 20 times, I was like, OK," Saxon said. "That's impressive for a 180-pound guy."

The Steelers were one of 11 teams to show up for Archer's pro day at Kent State. Another former Kent State return specialist, Josh Cribbs, showed up, too, to lend his support to Archer and offer some advice.

"I told him, look, every team you go to, they're going to have a back that they pay a lot of money for. It's the NFL," Cribbs, a former Pro Bowler with the Cleveland Browns, said in an interview in the Akron Beacon Journal. "If you can play special teams, that's going to give you an opportunity to play offense -- third down, screens or slot receiver. But concentrate on special teams. They want to see that speed."

Speed like a superhero?

"He's short, that's all he is," Saxon said. "He's not small. He's going to be an exciting guy to be around and watch."

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