If you asked Jaylen Samuels last April, right after he was selected by the Steelers in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, if he expected to start three games his rookie season, the answer you would have gotten would have been exactly what you expected.
But in the NFL you always have to expect the unexpected. Samuels stepped in and started Weeks 14-16 when James Conner was sidelined with an ankle injury. It was beyond what he expected for his rookie season, but was what he always wished for.
“It was crazy. It was like a dream come true,” said Samuels. “I never thought this year I would be starting. I knew it was a long season. I had to stay patient. I knew what type of player I was. I knew I belonged here. I got drafted late. I wanted to come in and prove to everybody I was better than a fifth round pick. I wanted to come in, make plays, open eyes, earn respect and help the team win. That is what I did since OTAs, rookie minicamp, come in and do what I have been doing.
“Unfortunately James got hurt. The position we play it’s a high percentage chance with the hits we take. It was a fun experience. I hope to be in that position again.”
Conner is the team’s starting running back, earning his first trip to the Pro Bowl after finishing the season with 215 carries for 973 yards and 13 touchdowns, while adding 55 receptions for 497 yards and a touchdown. But Samuels understands he will get his time too, giving Conner a breather when needed and always being ready if called upon.
“Whenever James needs a break I can go in there and give him a blow, have no drop off. I think it’s kind of cool,” said Samuels. “I feel like I gained more confidence as I got more reps. For us to be able to complement each other, play off each other is going to be a big deal in the long run.”
Conner was Samuels’ biggest fan when he was out there playing, giving him support, encouragement, and doing everything he could to help the rookie.
“James has helped me since I first got here,” said Samuels. “Whenever I needed help he gave me pointers. When he wasn’t playing he would give me pointers, what I should know. He helped me so much.
“It’s all love. We are all brothers, one family. When one person eats, we all eat. We encourage each other all of the time, even in practice. That is how we are.”
Samuels, whose college coach Eddie Faulkner was just hired as the Steelers new running backs coach, has a different skill set than Conner, which includes his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and then break a run. He had 56 carries for 256 yards last season, but also had 26 receptions for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
“I was used to doing that because that is what I did in college,” said Samuels. “They gave me the ball quick in open space and I made people miss. That is what they did here. I love it when I get the ball quick in open space, I usually make the first guy miss and then go from there. When I am in open space that is when I make my moves.”
Samuels is spending his offseason working on improving every aspect of his game as he prepares for his second season. He now knows what it takes, from taking care of your body, to the little things that can make you a better overall running back.
“You have to come ready to work every day,” said Samuels. “It’s all about your body. You have to put a lot into it off the field so it can show on the field. I am working on getting by body right. Getting a little faster. That is really it. I don’t want to work on getting any bigger.
“I just want to get faster, work on my speed. This league is fast. It’s not about size, it’s about speed and knowing what you have to do. I am going to work on speed mechanics. Work with a speed trainer, get mechanics and technique right. Everything I can do to be ready.”