After he missed the first few days of Steelers OTAs due to illness and an NFL Players Association event, it was easy to wonder: Where's third-round draft pick Dri Archer? Even after his return, the question often remains.
The 5-foot-8 Archer is easy to lose in crowds of taller teammates, but only briefly. The running back/slot receiver perpetually reveals himself in the open field.
Archer always has been easy to miss.
In high school while playing in the gold mine of football recruits that is Florida, Archer was listed as a two-star prospect and ignored by the major Florida universities. Although he would have liked to stay in his home state, he wasn't bothered by the lack of interest.
"It's their loss," Archer said.
He is used to being overlooked. Archer, who weighs all of 173 pounds, always has been told he is too small.
"Oh, everybody does it. Families do it, players do it, opponents do it, reporters do it," he said. "It's nothing new. It's something I've dealt with my whole life. It goes in this ear and goes out the other one."
After starring at Venice High School in Laurel, Fla., Archer played at Kent State, posting pedestrian seasons in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, he became even harder to notice when he was forced to take the entire year off due to academic problems. But in 2012, he broke out, scoring 23 touchdowns and leading the Golden Flashes to an 11-win season.
As a senior he was named third-team All-MAC as a receiver and kick returner, while also averaging 7.8 yards per carry.
"The year he had to sit out due to academic issues, that humbled him and it gave him the opportunity to understand how much he loved football," Purdue running backs coach Jafar Williams said.
Williams coached running backs in 2011 and 2012 at Kent State.
And although Archer had a tremendous junior season in 2012, totaling 1,429 yards and averaging 9 yards per carry, the competition he faced in the Mid-American Conference wasn't the same as the elite teams most NFL hopefuls face in college.
The Steelers' first two picks of the 2014 draft, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt, played at powerhouses Ohio State and Notre Dame, while every other Steelers pick played in a major conference, save for Massachusetts tight end Rob Blanchflower, taken in the seventh round.
But Archer is not fazed by his college experience and feels prepared for the next challenge. After all, the once overlooked recruit managed to become one of four national finalists for the 2012 Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation's most versatile college player.
"Any way you look at it, football is football. It doesn't matter what conference you're in," Archer said.
For evidence, look no further than the man who will pass and hand off to Archer, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who also played in the MAC at Miami (Ohio).
Although he hasn't had much time to work with Archer, Roethlisberger is pleased so far.
"He's made some young-guy mistakes, but he's done a good job of stepping up and really doing what he can to grow," Roethlisberger said.
Archer was clocked at 4.26 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, the second-fastest time by a running back since the event's inception, and will rely on his speed to get on the field. He is projected to get some action as a speed back as well as on special teams, where he excelled in college -- when teams would kick to him, that is.
His final two years at Kent State, Archer scored four touchdowns on only 18 return attempts. The few times he was kicked to, Archer sped through defenses as opponents lunged at him, often missing so badly it appeared the defenders couldn't see him.
But Williams doesn't consider speed alone to be Archer's best weapon. He thinks it's his balance.
"It's crazy when you have a guy that is that fast but is able to stay on his feet," he said.
Archer's height amplifies that, and Williams doesn't see the short stature as a disadvantage.
"He's a special player," Williams said. "People are going to be shocked to see how productive he is going to be. I predict he'll probably have two or three kick returns for a touchdown and maybe even be Rookie of the Year."
He still has a ways to go, with only a few practices under his belt. But Thursday, he looked right at home -- when you could locate him. The short speedster has a knack for getting lost.
Hayes Gardner: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1525 and Twitter @HayesGardner.