By BOB LABRIOLA
Up until now, Steelers fans had to access YouTube for a glimpse of Rashard Mendenhall performing his specialty, but thanks to the fact he is one of the No. 1 picks to have a signed contract they'll get a chance to see him live at Saint Vincent College tomorrow when pads go on for the first time.
Mendenhall's specialty is running the football from point A to point B without necessarily wasting a lot of energy on being elusive. His power is supposed to be the complement to Willie Parker's speed, and because Mendenhall's name has been affixed to a five-year contract already, the process of melding these assets can begin on schedule.
"We're looking forward to a great training camp, and we're pleased today to confirm that Rashard has signed a five-year contract," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "We're very happy that he's here on time and ready to go."
Mendenhall became the Steelers' fourth straight No. 1 pick to sign his rookie contract in time for the first workout in pads. In fact, over the past 10 years the only first-round pick to miss any significant amount of practice time was Alan Faneca, who signed nine days after the start of camp in 1998.
"Being picked in the first round you expect to contribute, but that's what training camp is for – to get in here and start to learn my role," said Mendenhall. "You don't want any distractions, and you don't want to be a distraction either, and to get the contract squared away I can come here and do what I need to do."
Coach Mike Tomlin is willing to allow Mendenhall's progress dictate what role the rookie running back might have in the team's offense in 2008. The team doesn't need Mendenhall to be a starter, but it nevertheless will need him in some capacity. The most obvious obstacle in his way will be learning the offense, but Mendenhall's on-time arrival here should prevent him from falling behind.
"I don't think (the learning) will be too much of a problem," said Mendenhall. "There's a huge playbook, but we went over a lot of it during OTAs, and they installed day-by-day, and I've been doing pretty well with it up to this point. I feel pretty good about the playbook."
There is a good bit of expectation that follows every No. 1 pick into his rookie season, and Mendenhall understands there's going to be a large dose of that. But there also seems to be some anticipation over the various ways Mendenhall might find a way to contribute in 2008.
Maybe in a tandem backfield alongside Parker. "I think that would work out real well," said Mendenhall. "It would be great to be back there with him. He's a Pro Bowl caliber running back, and he's been nothing but professional since I got here so I'd look forward to that."
Or maybe as a kickoff returner. "I did it all through high school, and I was very comfortable in doing that. When I got back there during the OTAs, I felt real confident and comfortable doing it. If they want me to return kicks, I'll be able to do it."
But whatever he does, Mendenhall's history indicates he will do it in a physical manner.
"I don't really consider myself strictly a power runner," said Mendenhall. "How I run is just all based on reaction – whatever I feel like will work at the time is what I do. A lot of times when you're in the box, though, all you can do is run through somebody."
Yes indeed. Just like he did in all of those YouTube snippets.