If there is one thing Jonathan Dwyer learned last season it's when opportunity knocks, you need to take advantage of it.
Dwyer, who was inactive for the Steelers first four games of the regular season last year, saw action against Tennessee week five when Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore were both injured. He responded with 11 carries for 107 yards, the team's first 100-yard rushing performance of the season, and a 76-yard touchdown run.
Mendenhall is a spectator once again, missing OTAs and mini-camp, and also expected to miss training camp and possibly the beginning of the season after suffering an ACL injury in the regular season finale against the Browns last year. Isaac Redman appears to be the odds on favorite to start when the season opens if Mendenhall can't, but Dwyer, along with John Clay, Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey, will all be pushing for significant playing time.
"I am approaching it with the mindset of it's an opportunity," said Dwyer. "You have to learn as much as you can, work hard and prepare yourself for whatever your role may be. I am getting better each and every day. I understand the playbook better and the concepts of each play. I am trying to improve every day, and push myself and each other every day. I am prepared for everything that comes my way, whether it's starting, being the back-up, whatever."
Clay also understands that this could be a perfect time for him to step away from the pack and show the coaching staff what he is capable of. Clay had limited opportunities last year, spending the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad, but was activated in late December and scored on a 10-yard touchdown run against the St. Louis Rams in his first NFL game.
"There is an opportunity," said Clay. "I have to prove it out here, show the coaches I am capable and willing to do anything I need to do to get out on the field. I just have to work on the little details, making sure when I do get my block that I have confidence that I got it, that I am not second guessing that this is or isn't my man. I have to show them that and produce every time I get the chance to run with the ball."
After getting that taste of playing in the NFL, Clay said he is willing to do whatever is asked of him in the offense, with his hope to become a complete back that can provide key yardage on first or third down or catch a pass out of the backfield.
"You get the taste of it and you don't want to give it back," said Clay. "It's a goal and dream I always had to play in the NFL. Scoring a touchdown I got to do that. I am just looking forward to pursuing my goal, my dream. I want to do more."
Dwyer is feeling the same way. After his performance against Tennessee he saw limited action the rest of the season and was placed on injured reserve on Dec. 8 with a foot injury.
"It makes the hunger greater," said Dwyer. "You get a taste of something and you want more of it, especially if it's something you love and desire to do. I want to keep working and do the best I can and help myself be the best person and player I can be."
The third-year player learned a lot about himself and what it takes to be a professional. He reported to camp last season admittedly out of shape after the lockout, but knows that can't happen again.
"I have become more mature and understand the business aspect of it more, becoming a pro, taking care of my body and being in shape," said Dwyer. "I am trying to take care of that. I am not in my best shape yet, but I am doing extra things. I am making sure I put extra time into helping myself, by doing that it's going to help me. I feel better than where I was last year and in a better situation going into camp.
"I punished myself and hurt myself and the team last year. The people here have high expectations for me and I have high expectations for myself. I want to help get us to New Orleans and win a championship. I want to put myself in the best situation to help myself and the team as well. I need to do what I am doing now and more, put more time in, eat right, do extra workouts, take care of my body and study. I know if I take care of those things God will take care of the rest."
Clay is also taking advantage of this offseason to get in shape. With the lockout last year he went into training camp not knowing fully what to expect. With the offseason program this year, it's a whole new ballgame and he is hoping it pays dividends.
"Experiencing an offseason this year is much better," said Clay. "It motivated me to get myself in the best shape I can, get ready to come in and run right away."