Despite a slight build, LaRod Stephens-Howling quickly became the best back at Pittsburgh, and he led the Panthers in rushing in 2005 as a freshman and again last fall with nearly 900 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.
Still, Stephens-Howling wasn't mentioned in the same breath as Rutgers' Ray Rice or West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Pat White and even Connecticut's Donald Brown in the Big East Conference.
"There are a lot of great backs in the Big East, and they deserve all the credit they get,'' Stephens-Howling said. "But I really don't worry about any of that stuff. As long as my coaches and my teammates appreciate me and know what I can do, that's all that matters to me.
"We have a chance to be a good team, and that's really what I'm worried about. I just want to do the best I can do to help this team win games. It hasn't been much fun reading about other teams going to bowl games while we are sitting at home, so winning is what is on all of our minds.''
There are those who believe that the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Stephens-Howling isn't Pitt's best chance to win at tailback. That honor goes to freshman tailback LeSean McCoy, who had some dazzling performances during Pitt's recent training camp.
That hardly seems fair for someone with Stephens-Howling's history with the Panthers. But don't worry, Pitt running backs coach David Walker and head coach Dave Wannstedt have had nothing but praise for Stephens-Howling.
"LaRod isn't going anywhere and there isn't anything we're going to be doing that he isn't going to be a part of,'' Walker said. "He's a special talent. He's got a great attitude, and he's very motivated.
"But he is a complete player who will be a big part of our offense and I think, if he stays healthy he will start to get recognized in that category of the other bigger name backs in the Big East.''
Wannstedt praised Stephens-Howling every chance he got throughout camp. He noted that the speedster was the most underrated back in the Big East.
"If LaRod stays healthy, he's a 1,000-yard rusher, no doubt,'' Wannstedt said. "He's now bench pressing over 300 pounds, he's worked hard on getting bigger and stronger. The offseason that he's had has given him a better chance to be more durable. He's capable of doing something special every time he touches the ball.''
Stephens-Howling is as modest as he is talented, and he shuns accolades about as easily as he runs away from tacklers. But now that Kevin Collier is out of the mix with a broken wrist, Stephens-Howling knows he'll probably have to carry a little more of the load this season.
"I never thought this was a one-man show or that I should get 25 carries a game, although I welcome all the carries they'll give me,'' Stephens-Howling said. "I know LeSean is a great back, and he needs to get his carries. And Conredge Collins should get the ball a lot, too.
"But that doesn't mean there aren't enough carries for all of us. We have to find a way to coexist in this offense, and it's the coach's job to figure it out. We have a lot of talent on this football team, and I believe we can have an explosive offense. We just have to use everyone the right way.''
McCoy, who is 5-11, 210, has a different running style than Stephens-Howling, and neither run like Collins. So, Stephens-Howling isn't threatened by either. He thinks Pitt should bring in more talented backs.
"I think it's great that Pitt keeps recruiting great players,'' Stephens-Howling said. "That's how we get better as a team. Why wouldn't I want a great running back to come here? We're trying to get better as a unit.
"We're trying to become a much better team running the football. ... So, the more good players we have the better it is for everyone at Pitt.''
And in the meantime, Stephens-Howling will continue to do all that he's asked for the Panthers.
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