Can Brandon Brown-Dukes jump from Mercyhurst to the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Undrafted rookie's darting quickness gives him a chance

In early May, Brandon Brown-Dukes got off a plane at the Latrobe Airport instead of the Pittsburgh Airport because, like many of us in Westmoreland County, he wanted to save a few bucks.

The all-time leading rusher at Mercyhurst University didn't have much money. In fact, after attending his alma mater's spring game in Erie that day, Brown-Dukes was planning to head to Rochester, N.Y., to start a job with a tire distributor.

And then his phone rang.

It was his mother. She told him to call the Pittsburgh Steelers right away.

Even though Brown-Dukes had gone undrafted and unsigned, the Steelers had watched him work out at the California (Pa.) University pro day. They had watched him run an unimpressive 4.68 40 after measuring 5-7 5/8, 200, but they liked something about him and needed to fill a spot at their rookie minicamp that was already underway. 

"I came up here with clothes to hang out in, not football," said Brown-Dukes. "I had to get a new pair of cleats and everything. I didn't have anything to work out in. It caught me by surprise."

But he showed up and looked nothing like a 4.7 guy. He showed plenty of quickness and was chosen to continue on with the 90-man roster once the vets reported.

What about that 40 time?

"It was freezing, so I don't know," Brown-Dukes said of his pro day. "I clocked faster when I was home training, but I just take whatever they give on paper."

Perhaps the Steelers liked the 26 bench reps Brown-Dukes put up that day at Cal U. Or maybe it was the way he darted through his agility drills. At spring practices, Brown-Dukes looked like a guy who'll compete for a spot on the Steelers' practice squad, if not the 53-man roster, at training camp.

"He's a 4.55-4.6 guy, not exceptionally fast but exceptionally quick," said the man who recruited Brown-Dukes to Mercyhurst, assistant coach Tom Herman. "He's a great person. He's very football smart. He has good hands and he has great vision and he can really make the cuts. He can change direction pretty fast."

Of course, the Steelers went looking for that kind of darting quickness in 2014 when they drafted Dri Archer in the third round. But Archer never lived up to his sub-4.2 speed in pads and was released last year. In fact, Brown-Dukes appeared to be quicker on the Steelers' spring practice field.

"Sometimes kids play faster when they're around faster people," Herman said. "He doesn't time as fast maybe when you time him in the 40, but some people, when they're in the game, you know how that goes. When they're in the game they play as fast as they have to. So he's faster with faster people chasing him. It really seems like he's picked it up."

Herman was among a handful of Mercyhurst coaches who attended Steelers workouts this past spring. They appeared to be as proud of Brown-Dukes as Brown-Dukes appeared to be of them while meeting up after the workouts.

"He's a special guy," Herman said. "That's the one thing about a program like ours. The kids are football players but they're also part of our family."

Herman was just as proud of another former Mercyhurst player, Ian Wild, who enjoyed a productive camp with the Steelers last summer before being cut and returning to the CFL. Brown-Dukes is the next hope from the frozen outpost in Erie.

Which begs the question: What was a 1,000-yard rusher from Orlando's Winter Park High School doing at such a remote D-2 school?

"Coach Herm has a cousin who lives next door to my high school," said Brown-Dukes. "He went to visit him and showed up at the high school. They needed a running back and he asked our coach. My coach said something to me and I had my film in my backpack so I handed it to him and I ended up going there for a visit."

The only other school to make Brown-Dukes an offer was Mars Hill in North Carolina, but Brown-Dukes opted for the cold.

"Yeah, it is cold there," he said. "It's worse than Buffalo. I mean, this past year or two Buffalo was bad but Erie's bad every year."

So, why?

"It was something different and I embraced it. That was another reason I went there. It was so different from me being in Florida 18 years, so it turned out being a great experience and I got used to it. I packed on as many layers as I could and that was it. It worked out."

It helped that Brown-Dukes also packed on 20 pounds during his redshirt year. He was ready when the top two running backs got hurt before the 2012 opener, which Brown-Dukes started. He then ripped off 213 yards against Millersville in the second game and was on his way to a 1,295-yard season and the Conference's Freshman of the Year award.

Brown-Dukes finished his career as the school's all-time leading rusher with 3,803 yards (5.1 avg.) with a school-record 18 100-yard games. He also caught 38 passes his last two seasons but didn't return any kicks since he had returned six for 68 yards as a freshman.

"He can return kicks," said Herman. "But the further into his career he went the more we wanted to use other guys so he wouldn't get hurt."

Brown-Dukes said his collegiate highlight occurred in his sophomore season against Indiana University of Pa.

"I'll never forget it," he said. "IUP was the No. 1 defense of the country. They were the Alabama of D-2 and I went for like 130 yards. For three quarters we were neck and neck, down a point, but then it got away from our defense at the end of the fourth quarter."  

His junior and senior seasons didn't go as well, and his pro day 40 time seemed to end all of Brown-Dukes' NFL aspirations. But the Steelers saw something and gave him the call.

And the career in tire sales?

"I called the manager and he was fine with it," Brown-Dukes said with a smile. "He's a Steelers fan."

Can Brown-Dukes make it here?

"Oh yeah I definitely feel I have a chance," he said. "I don't doubt myself. I'd be putting myself behind the eight ball if I didn't think I had a chance. I'm new to it. I'm new to all the language so I'm not sure what to expect or what's to come, so I just do what I have to do and let the rest take care of itself. That's pretty much it."

Is he keeping up with the complexities of a pro offense?

"To a degree I would say I'm keeping up," he said. "It's just coming from a more simple offense; it's just the complexity of protection, and the patience. I've got to be patient now. At Mercyhurst it was hit it and go. Here, you've really got to let things develop."

Like his name. Right now, Mike Tomlin just calls him "Mercyhurst."

"I love it," Brown-Dukes said. "I love everything about this place. It's a great place to be. It's crazy. I didn't expect it but it's real cool. It's REAL cool."

But not cold. Not yet anyway.

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