The hunt for Willie Parker's top backup begins and ends tonight with Najeh Davenport, who will start at halfback for the Steelers against the New Orleans Saints in Canton, Ohio.
The search to fill the spots behind Parker and Davenport takes on a more fascinating turn and includes two young backs chasing a dream.
Undrafted rookie Gary Russell and not-your-average-first-year player Carey Davis have made enough of an impression through the first two weeks of training camp that one or the other could become the next Hydroplane Deloplaine.
Jack Deloplaine was a little known back from Salem State College in West Virginia when he made a splash -- literally --in a preseason performance in the rain at Philadelphia in 1976. Watching the water bug pick up yards, broadcaster Myron Cope dubbed him Hydroplane Deloplaine. He not only made the two-time defending Super Bowl champs but played for the Steelers the next four seasons and picked up two Super Bowl rings.
Davis and Russell likely never heard of Hydroplane, but they know Fast Willie Parker, an inspiration to all undrafted rookie backs everywhere.
"He makes you feel like it's possible," Davis said. "He went through a lot. I've been through a lot as well. It's not like it can't happen; it definitely can happen. I just have to be in the right situation, the right place at the right time."
This could be it for both Davis and/or Russell.
Davis plays fullback and halfback and has a Barry Foster-like build at 5 feet 10, 225 pounds -- stocky and low-to-the ground. He joined the Steelers' practice squad Nov. 2 and he has been around the block, wearing his fifth NFL uniform.
He signed with the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted rookie in 2004, made the roster but was cut Sept. 13. The Colts, though, elevated him after the regular season, and he played on special teams in two playoff games.
Since then, he has been on the offseason roster of the Atlanta Falcons (2005) and the practice squad of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2005, with Mike Tomlin as secondary coach), where he remained until he was cut Sept. 3. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Miami Dolphins (2006).
"Carey has that ability to play a lot of different positions," said Kirby Wilson, the Steelers' running backs coach. "He's smart; he's what they call a 'tweener -- really a tribute to him because he can do a lot of things. We like him, we like what he does. Right now, he's in the thick of it."
Tonight, Davis will play halfback, fullback, on some first special teams and get a shot as a third-down back against the Saints.
"We want to see what Carey Davis can do in that area," Tomlin said.
Russell's case is a little different than Davis'. Russell, a Columbus, Ohio, native, did not play football last season after flunking out at Minnesota, where he gained 1,130 yards as the backup to Laurence Maroney in 2005.
Russell (5-11, 222) admitted he got lazy and fat, climbing to 260 pounds.
"I had academic problems, being lazy and immature. It was all on me. I wasn't getting up and going to class."
He also flunked most of the workouts he had early this year for the pro teams.
"I was overweight and I really wasn't prepared too much for it."
He was not drafted, but he lost some weight and the Steelers gave him a shot.
"Any time you sit out a year, it's going to take you a little longer," Wilson said. "To his credit, he's moved along a lot faster than a lot of people thought he could."
There is a bevy of candidates behind Parker and Davenport. Veteran Kevan Barlow did not have a good first two weeks and may find himself out of the running soon. Verron Haynes is trying to show he can come back from surgery to repair virtually all of the ligaments in his left knee in November. John Kuhn, who played nine games for the Steelers last season, is trying to make it again as a halfback/fullback. And there is Larry Croom and veteran starting fullback Dan Kreider.
The Steelers usually keep five backs.
"We're going to play a lot of guys in different situations," Tomlin said of the plan for his running backs tonight.
"We don't know what they're capable of specifically in terms of role development. I think if we keep an open mind and give them the opportunity to show what they're capable of, it will become clear."Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Najeh Davenport, right, will start in place of Willie Parker tonight.
Click photo for larger image.
Game: Steelers vs. New Orleans Saints in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame game.
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Fawcett Stadium, Canton, Ohio.
TV: NFL Network & KDKA.
Radio: WDVE-FM (102.5) and the Steelers Radio Network.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .