Wilson's Return an Inspiration to Steelers

The running backs corps is a bit nicked at the time, but the return of coach Kirby Wilson has the group motivated by his own personal resolve.

LATROBE – The starter is out for at least half the season, the backup is an up-and-comer.

Then there's a second-year player who made waves a year ago until he tore up a knee and spent the season on injured reserve, a rookie and a couple of bit players from a year ago.

So what reason is there to be encouraged by the state of the Steelers' running game?

His name is Kirby Wilson. His title is Steelers running backs coach. But in reality he is the glue that holds all of these parts together. He also has become an inspiration to many in the Steelers organization.

Wilson, who joined the Steelers with coach Mike Tomlin in 2007, has been through this rodeo before, but probably never longed to get to training camp as much as he did this season.

Wilson suffered severe burns in a house fire a few days before the Steelers lost their playoff opener in Denver last January. Since then, he has endured grueling, gut-wrenching rehabilitation that you and I could only envision in our worst nightmares.

But he is back, back at training camp where he belongs, doing what he does.

"At OTAs, he wasn't getting around too good," said running back Isaac Redman, the up-and-comer and likely opening-day starter. "Now, just a month later, coach is back and he seems to be thriving."

"I used the OTAs as a measuring stick to where I'd be at training camp," Wilson said. "It's going well, so far. Now, my goal is to leave camp as good as when I got here."

It's truly an amazing story that Wilson is with us at all, let alone being back at work. He doesn't want to talk about what happened or how he managed to regain the life he enjoyed before the accident, except to acknowledge the "tremendous" support he received from the Steelers and Steelers Nation.

"It never occurred to me that I wouldn't be here," Wilson said. "It was more a matter of what condition I'd be in when I got here."

Of course, there are still potential problems that Wilson has to avoid. Asked if he will coach from a mobile cart or on foot, Wilson said it has to be a mix.

"I've got to be careful," he said. "I have to take rests. It's the heat that's a big concern. I've got to be smart and make sure I don't burn."

But enough about Wilson, he would tell you.

Except for this: Wilson replaced Dick Hoak as running backs coach and Hoak coached the Steelers running backs for 35 years after being one for the previous 10. Stability at the top is one reason why the Steelers' running game is always among the league's best.

So, even though starter Rashard Mendenhall is rehabbing a knee injury, and Baron Batch enters his second season coming off a knee injury, and Redman gets his shot at the starting job, and rookie Chris Rainey brings blazing speed to oppose the brute strength of Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay, not much has changed.

"It's no different at all," Wilson said. "It's always about accountability and protecting the quarterback." Throw in a new offensive coordinator (Todd Haley replaced Bruce Arians) and the recipe for change looms large, doesn't it?

"I've been doing this for 15 years and I've been through nine offensive coordinators," Wilson said. "It's all about what you emphasize. Right now, the emphasis is a high-powered offense.

"The competition at running back, it's heated," Wilson said. "Redman has some experience then there are a bunch of young guys. Their competition is really wide open."

"I wouldn't say it's a running back friendly offense," Redman said. "We'll be more involved in the passing game this year and that's a big plus. I'm looking forward to getting everything started. I always work hard and I worked just as hard for this year, knowing more will be on my shoulders. The coaches have a lot of faith in me and it's up to me to show them I've gotten better since last year." Redman is a three-year veteran, but has no choice but to step up in all areas.

"I'm taking on more of a leadership role, which I should because I'm the oldest running back in the room."

Rainey, the speedy rookie from Florida, and Batch, last year's camp phenom, have Wilson juiced for this competition.

"I'm excited about Rainey, but I don't want to get overly excited," Wilson said. "He's a young guy and he's a small guy. Baron Batch is the type of player who wants to be coached and he likes hard coaching. We're trying to bring out the best in him."

That, in a nutshell, is what Kirby Wilson is all about.

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