By Teresa Varley
His name was not among those the "draft experts" thought the Steelers would select in the first round as many did not expect running back Rashard Mendenhall to be available when the Steelers were on the clock with the 23rd pick.
But when he was there, there was no doubt that Mendenhall would be snatched up by the black and gold.
"As we finalized our preparations mid-week, the coaching staff, scouting staff and ownership all sat down and we came up with a list of players that we would not trade away from if they were available at 23," said director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "Rashard Mendenhall was one of those players – so we are very excited that this player was available at 23, because it was unexpected. I don't want his agent hearing that, but it's the truth."
Mendenhall brings with him a bruising style of running inside, with the ability to break loose on the outside. It's a combination that will work perfectly with what Willie Parker brings to the table.
"This is an exciting running back," said Colbert. "He runs with power, he runs with moves, he can catch. He'll work as a blocker. This is something that's very exciting for this organization, and we were happy to make that pick."
Mendenhall, who ranked seventh in Illinois history with 2,539 rushing yards despite coming out as a junior, started only one season for the Illini but made the most of it. He rushed for 1,681 yards, a 6.4 yard per carry average and scored 17 touchdowns. He also had 34 receptions for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
"In terms of what he brings to the table – he's a complete back," said head coach Mike Tomlin. "He can run inside, he can run outside. He's a powerful runner. He's elusive, and of course he has the speed to go the distance. It shouldn't be too difficult finding ways that he can contribute to this football team."
His final game was in the Rose Bowl against USC when he carried the ball 17 times for 168 yards and had five receptions for 59 yards. It was a performance that opened a lot of eyes.
"He showed up big on the big stage, and you like guys that show that characteristic – the ability to rise up at opportune moments," said Tomlin. "But he's got a complete body of work. Any tape you turn on, he's a force for that football team and one of the reasons that they were able to get to that game."
Despite all of that, though, it was a long wait for Mendenhall as he sat patiently hoping for that phone to ring on Saturday.
"It was tough, I'm not going to lie," said Mendenhall. "I thought that I was going to be the one who was going to come into the draft and not be nervous at all. As it started rolling, the sweat started rolling as well. I feel good about it right now."
And he isn't the only one.