Bob Arcurio, his head coach, certainly knows what he has in Stephens, and he certainly appreciates having the talented running back in his stable. He said, "LaRod is a good one, that's for sure. His field vision is what makes him better than even the good running backs. He sees the entire field and senses when to make one of his patented moves."
He added, "LaRod is so quick that he doesn't need much of a hole. He hits the hole so fast, and when he stops and takes off again, he doesn't lose a beat. He has this amazing quickness, and he is never afraid to put his head down and take on a tackler head on if he needs to get an extra yard."
Arcurio also said, "I'll tell you something else. The kid can outright block! He will not make Pitt regret getting him. He will be a good one at the next level, regardless what position he plays."
His running ability is what garnered him a full scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, his favorite college, and Coach Walt Harris was never hesitant to offer him as a junior. He plans to study Business at Pitt.
He attended Pitt's Junior Day and was immediately offered the scholarship by Harris. He received an offer from Penn State and the University of Indiana was hot on his trail, along with Maryland, Mississippi, Purdue, Youngstown State, and Boston College, but ultimately, he chose Pitt and was extremely happy with his decision. He talked about that decision.
"The entire recruiting situation was hectic", he said. "My decision to commit to Pitt was very easy after I visited there. I liked Penn State a lot, but overall, I felt more hospitality from the entire Pitt coaching staff. It just felt good to me."
He continued, "Coach Harris met me right away, and we talked for a while. He then had to leave to take a phone call, and Coach (Curtis) Bray introduced himself to me. He's a great guy too. Coach Harris then returned and asked me to go to his office where he showed me a jersey with my name on it. That is when he offered the scholarship. It was a great feeling!"
Arcurio was very pleased with his player's decision. The former Pitt graduate said, "LaRod made the right choice by selecting Pitt. There's no doubt about that at all. Coach Harris made a wise decision offering LaRod the scholarship. I told Coach Harris that he was the type of kid that could walk right in and end up starting for him as a freshman He just smiled. He knows what a great player he got in LaRod."
There are many observers, including this writer, that have seen a very strong likeness to another former Pitt runner, Tony Dorsett, who went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career with the Dallas Cowboys. He is a little shorter than Dorsett, but he has the same lightning quick moves, the speed, the vision, and the toughness to run inside.
Arcurio added to the comparison when he stated, "When I was an assistant here at Johnstown in 1972, I went to scout one of our opponents. They happened to be playing Hopewell, and I got my first look at Dorsett. I couldn't believe how quickly he came off the ball, and hit the hole and how fast he was when he saw an opening. I told Bob Lichtenfels (PittInsiders.com) that LaRod reminded me so much of Dorsett, and I think that is where the comparison took off."
While Stephens has a tendency to shy away from all the attention, he can never shy away from the attention that opposing teams give him. His offensive coordinator, Brian Wright, knows that he has a huge task in front of him trying to give Stephens a little bit of a break from all that attention.
He said, " I have spent this entire spring trying to come up with ways to keep the pressure off him, but ultimately it comes down to the fact that LaRod is the player who makes the big plays. We had good players who surrounded him last year and will have good players this year, but when we need a big play, LaRod will be there to make it. He can always be counted on for that."
He added, "What also makes LaRod even more special is that he is a really unselfish player. He gives more than 150%. He is as hard working a player as I have ever seen, and what is surprising is that he never wants any of this attention. He never fails to give the credit foe his success to the offensive line. He is really quite humble, and he definitely knows what it takes to get the job done. He is truly a classy kid!"
It will definitely be difficult to surpass all the accomplishments that Stephens achieved last season, but as he is spending more time in the weight room these days, he is getting stronger, and it could be an even better year for him. Just take a quick glance at what he accomplished in 2003:
- First Team Class AAA All-Pennsylvania Football News Running Back
- First Team Associated Press Class AAA Running Back
- Old Spice Red Zone Player of the Year
- Johnstown Point Stadium Player of the Year
- Southern Allegheny Football Coaches Association Offensive Player of the Year
- Nominated for the Russell Athletics All-American Team
- Nominated for the Gatorade Player of the Year
- Listed as a "Fab 50", one of the top 50 running backs in the nation
- Nominated for Rivals100.com as one of the top 100 players in the country
- Rushed for 2,226 yards on 192 carries (12 yards per carry)
- Broke the Laurel Highlands single season rushing record
- Broke Greater Johnstown's single season rushing record (set in 1974)
- Invited to attend the Nike Camp at Penn State University
- Will be listed in Varsity Speed Magazine
- Citation from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on his accomplishments.
Can he duplicate those honors in 2004? Arcurio thinks that the sky is the limit for the 165-pound speedster. He said, "We have to rebuild our offensive line, but we have some quality kids up front. Depending on how fast they jell, will determine how successful we will be this year. As far as LaRod goes, all that he needs is a slight opening, and he could take it the whole way. His upper body strength is vastly improved, and that will help him even more this season."
He added, "One of the best stories about LaRod was when he was a sophomore. My defense coordinator came up to me and said, "There's only one kid on this defense that knows how to tackle, and that's LaRod." He played safety last year, but will probably play cornerback this year, so he really does it all. He isn't afraid to hit people on defense, and he is an outstanding kickoff and punt return man also. You might see him doing that next year at Pitt as a true freshman. I'm sure they feel that they need to get him into open spaces so he can use his elusiveness to the best advantage."
Of course, Wright isn't really too concerned with his defensive abilities. He mainly is concerned about Stephen's offense for the upcoming season, and he knows that he will be the key to the Trojans moving the ball. He gives a lot of credit to Stephen's running back coach, Ted Helsel, a former All-American running back at St. Francis College. He said, "Ted has really helped LaRod a lot. He was an outstanding running back himself, and he has tutored LaRod about the little things that make a great runner. He has been a huge asset to our staff."
Stephen's agreed with Wright's assessment. He stated, "Coach Helsel has been very helpful to me throughout my varsity career. He was an All-American at St. Francis, and when an All-American tells you something, you better listen to him. I really respect what he has to say. He is really knowledgeable about the running game and he has passed a lot of that on to me. He has been very influential as far as helping me become a better runner last year."
"Coach Wright", he added, "is a good offensive coordinator. He spends more time watching film than anyone I ever saw. He is really well prepared, but that's because he puts in a lot of work. Coach Arcurio makes practices fun and is a great motivator. He gets us ready to play a game every week. Our whole staff is pretty awesome. I'm glad that I don't have one of those "Drill Sergeant Coaches" that don't make it fun."
Arcurio stressed that Stephens is much more than a great football player. He said, "These young kids here in Johnstown look up to him. When we have an event, the youngsters get excited and say, "Hey, there's LaRod." They then rush up to him and gather around him just wanting to be a round him.
He continued, "He is just so humble and low key and truly doesn't like the limelight. He is a good student, carries around a 3.2 GPA and everyone has a good word about him. He's an all-around athlete too, as he wrestled, played baseball, and ran track here."
Wright added, "LaRod is just a great kid to coach, and you can bet the house that there are a lot of defensive coordinators out there that are not sitting on their thumbs waiting for the season before they can devise a way to stop him. They are preparing for him already. And yes, we are still very excited about the upcoming season. How could we not be with a kid like LaRod running the football?"
While Stephens excels on the gridiron, he is still your average high school student. He enjoys video games, and chatting online with friends. He has five brothers and a sister and all are extremely supportive of his efforts. He commented on this. "My mom and dad have been great. My sister lives in Atlanta, GA, so she doesn't get to see me play, but my brothers are always there for me. Sometimes my parents are overly supportive, but I love my mom and dad. They really care about me and my brothers and sister, and that's really important to me and the family."
There is no question that Stephens is a good football player now, and if continues to get stronger, he will be a good one for Pitt also. He will bring them a dimension that they haven't had since that young running back from Hopewell carried the Panthers to a national championship in 1976, and yes LaRod Stephens will do it with humility and a lot of class!