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Warren won’t take no for an answer
Steelers running back Jaylen Warren has made a habit of overcoming the odds
By Dale Lolley  Sep 25, 2022

The 2016 Max Preps High School Football All-American team included some very familiar names.

Future NFL players dotted the list, particularly on offense, where the wide receivers were Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tee Higgins, the offensive linemen had the likes of Walker Little, Wyatt Davis, Trey Smith and Josh Meyers.

But the real star power was at running back, where the No. 1 recruit in the country, Najee Harris was joined by future Georgia and Lions star D'Andre Swift and some kid out of East High School in Salt Lake City, Utah by the name of Jaylen Warren.

While many of other players on the All-American team were headed to major college programs – including Harris to Alabama – Warren had to take a different path.

But that path has brought him back around to joining Harris with the Steelers backfield in 2022. It just took him a little longer to get there.

Though Warren had rushed for a state record 3,099 yards and 38 touchdowns in his senior year at East, leading the Leopards to a perfect 14-0 record and a state title, the college programs weren't knocking on his door.

East had five offensive linemen and a tight end who would all go on to play NCAA Division I football. But the highly productive fullback on that team? He couldn't get a sniff of an offer.

College coaches looked at his size – Warren was then listed at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds – and what they felt was a lack of top end speed and continually took a pass on the record-setting runner.

"We played De La Salle High School in California that year. We took a bus out there and played them and Jaylen had 256 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries (actually 26 according to newspaper accounts) and we beat them 23-21," said longtime East High School coach Brandon Matich. "The following week, Najee Harris played on that same field against them and he had 131 yards on 32 carries and his team lost."

The 256-yard game by Warren was nothing new. He did that against everyone. And he did it despite playing most of the season with a badly injured hamstring.

"When he was a senior, the second game of the year, he had two identical runs against a power in our state. We won 38-0. He had a 70-yard run and a 60-yard run off tackle," Matich said. "On the second one, he had a severe hamstring pull. Every single week, and this is no lie, he would come to Saturday morning film on crutches, and we thought, 'He's done. He's not going to play the rest of the year.' 

"Monday, he'd be on crutches. Tuesday, he would get treatment. Wednesday, he'd ride a stationary bike behind the huddle. Thursday, he'd do walk-through. Friday, he'd rush for 250. And we'd start the whole process over again, every single week. He was crazy tough and just different."

That toughness, that love of the game was apparent from the first time the Steelers put on the pads in training camp at Saint Vincent College.

Warren was an immediate standout in the Steelers' first backs-on-backers drill, stoning both Mark Robinson and Robert Spillane on two reps each against the inside linebackers and earning praise all around for doing so.

Rest assured, his new teammates took notice. And it's something that has carried on to the regular season.

After the Steelers' 23-20 overtime win over the Bengals, there were clips on Twitter showing multiple times where Warren not only blocked an oncoming defender, but decleated them.

"Some of those blocks he made, there was a clip out there," center Mason Cole said. "He was doing that all training camp. A week into full pads, we saw him make a block like that on blitz protection. There aren't many running backs in this league that are willing to stick their noses in there like that. But Jaylen has been able to. It's cool to see for a young guy."

The Steelers' coaching staff certainly took notice.

And unlike the college coaches who had passed over Warren because of his lack of ideal height, they looked at what he was doing on the football field and let that represent him.

"He has an appetite for the competition, that's a good thing," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said after that first backs-on-backers period. "He's learning and learning fast. I think the most significant thing that has captured my attention is that he seems really comfortable in these waters from a competition standpoint."

Why wouldn't he be? Warren has been competing and trying to prove himself his entire life.

He didn't earn a starting spot in high school until the last game of his sophomore season. Warren showed up for his first practice as a freshman at East High School as an undersized running back. But Matich saw something in him early.

"I remember his freshman year, we had a senior running back Ula Tolutau who was initially recruited to go to Wisconsin but wound up taking his mission trip like so many kids do and wound up at BYU," Matich said. "But I'm sitting there in the gym with Jaylen and I said to him, 'Do you think you can be as good as Ula?' He looked at me, and here's this 5-foot-4, kind of pudgy running back, and he says, 'I'm going to be better.'"

Little did Matich know how right Warren would turn out to be.

As the team's scout team running back as a sophomore, Warren tortured the Leopards' first-team defense. They couldn't tackle him.

So, in the final game of the season. Matich gave Warren a start. Warren gained 231 yards on 18 carries in that win over Timpview.

And even then, as the 200-yard games continued to pile up through his junior and senior seasons, people still questioned whether it was Warren making all those yards or the line in front of him in East's triple-option attack.

"Yeah. They said I was a system back," Warren said. "That's what the college teams were saying. 'He's a systems back. He can't play in our offense.' It is what it is. It's their opinion."

Unfortunately at the time, their opinions were all that mattered.

And they weren't changing.

"We had a head coach and an assistant coach from a Division I, Mountain West program visiting and I asked him what was going on with Jaylen Warren," Matich recalled. "They told me he wasn't big enough. He wasn't fast enough. He got his yards because our offensive line was so good. Jaylen had 3,100 yards. He scored 38 touchdowns. Both were state records. All of our linemen were juniors. I told them, if it wasn't the running back, come back next year and see what our running back did. Our leading rusher had 1,200 yards the next year."

There just wasn't any love for the little back that churned out yards at a record-breaking pace.

"They said I was a system back," Warren said. "That's what the college teams were saying. 'He's a systems back. He can't play in our offense.' It is what it is. It's their opinion."

With no offers waiting, the Utah Player of the Year and first-team Max Preps All-American was headed to Snow College in Ephraim, Utah.

It's a recurring theme for Warren, now a teammate of Harris with the Steelers. Few gave him a chance to make the Steelers' roster in training camp after going undrafted in the spring. All he did was excel at everything the Steelers asked him to do, winning a spot on the roster and supplanting veteran Benny Snell as the main backup to Harris.

"He's always been unassuming and underestimated," Matich said. "They've always thought he wasn't big enough, he wasn't fast enough, he wasn't strong enough. And he's always just proved people wrong."

Even after he spent two years at Snow College, being named the 2018 NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year and first-team NCJAA All-American honors after leading the division in rushing at 159.4 yards per game, the offers didn't roll in.

"I had offers from Utah State and Hawaii," Warren said. "I decided I would take the first offer I got."

So, Utah State it was.

Even then, however, Warren was asked to split carries.

He finished second on the Aggies with 569 yards rushing, including 141 yards on 19 carries against Wake Forest in the opener, only to wind up splitting time. And when COVID-19 hit in 2020 and he was again splitting time, Warren decided to transfer after just a few games and start over again, this time at Oklahoma State.

Warren's work ethic was such that his teammates named the transfer student a team captain. And just a couple of games into the season, he became the Cowboys' starting running back, rushing for 218 yards on 32 carries in a Week 3 win over Boise State. By season's end, he had rushed for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns.

"I didn't know anything about him, but once his name popped up in the transfer portal, I pulled out his Utah State tape and saw a physical runner," said Oklahoma State running backs coach John Wozniak. "The thing about Jaylen, he just practiced so hard. He made everyone around him better with the way he practices. I love that kid."

But despite a big season in a Power-5 conference, he went unselected in the draft, signing with the Steelers soon after the draft ended.

"Every day I come to the facility, I see the Steelers logo and I'm like, 'I'm really going to the Steelers facility,'" Warren said. "I still get the same high I got from the first time I walked up in here."

And he was determined to stay.

"Football is extremely important to him," Matrich said. "If you go back and look at the rookie minicamp camp picture when the rookies are all there, everybody in the photo has their helmet off except for Jaylen. I called Jaylen and I said, 'You had your helmet on. What are you doing?' He said, 'Coach, you taught me to always have my helmet on when we're on the field. It worked for me in high school. It worked for me in college. It's going to work for me in the NFL. We were on the field, so I had my helmet on.'

"When he gets an opportunity to play, whether it's pass blocking, running, chipping a defender, leading on a reverse or a sweep or catching the ball out of the backfield, he's going to put everything he has into it. This is his moment. This is his opportunity."

It also was around that time Warren learned his roots with the Steelers run deep.

Born in his father's hometown of Clinton, N.C., Warren and his family moved to Utah when he was 2 when his mother's father died.

Had the family stayed in North Carolina, Warren might have known he had a relative who would become well known to Steelers fans. His father's mother is the sister of former Steelers' running back Willie Parker.

As it was, on the other side of the country, Warren had no idea until approached by reporters about the ties.

"I didn't even know he was my cousin until I signed here," Warren said. "I didn't know who he was. Somebody was like, 'You're Willie Parker's cousin.' I was like, 'Who's that?' I didn't know."

Now, he obviously does. In fact, soon after, he and Parker met for the first time on a video call.

They had more in common than just being relatives. Their path to the NFL was similar, as well.

Both were undrafted rookie free agents. Both had been underestimated.

Parker went on to have great success, rushing for 5,378 yards in six NFL seasons. He also holds the record for the longest run in Super Bowl history with a 75-yard scamper in the Steelers' win over the Seahawks in 2006.

You'll excuse Warren if he doesn't remember that. After all, he was just seven years old at the time and hadn't started playing football himself.

And he never believed he would be where he's at now, anyway.

Oh sure, there are hopes and dreams. But when people keep telling you no and you have to keep proving them wrong, there's always some doubt in the back of your mind.

That's why cutdown day was a tough one for Warren. He spent the day at the UPMC-Rooney Sports Complex waiting for someone to come and tell him the coaching staff wanted to see him.

It never happened.

"I was anxious. But I was like, whatever happens, happens. I can't control the outcome," Warren said. "I put everything I could out there. If somebody came up to me and told me I was getting cut, it is what it is. I had my head on a swivel though, hoping a guy with a paper didn't come up to me and ask for my iPad.

"When it hit 4 o'clock. I was kind of relieved, but you've still got work to do."

When you've been told you're not good enough so many times, it's only natural to have that attitude, that chip on your shoulder.

"I never thought that," Warren said of belonging in the NFL. "I just put my best foot forward. I thought if it's good enough, OK. If it's not, I'll do something else. I was never like, 'I belong in the NFL.' I never said that to myself.

"I think I'm getting there. I don't have much of a resume yet. I haven't been through a season, so we'll see."

Matich wouldn't bet against Warren.

He's seen him overcome all the odds to have great success too many times.

"I've been a Chicago Bears fan my entire life, but I just bought a bunch of Pittsburgh Steelers stuff," Matich said. "That's because I love that kid to death. I'm so happy for him. We turn him on all the time. He's going to give that program everything he's got. In his mind, he never will think he made it. 

"So, he's always going to feel he has a mountain to climb, so he'll give it everything he has because he doesn't want to be left out. That's the way he practices, the way he plays, the way he competes. It's the way he goes about life. I think it's going to work out really well for him."

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