Young backs hungry to perform

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Bill Cowher wouldn't anoint a starting running back Friday for the Steelers' preseason opener in Detroit on Saturday. He called the choice between Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley "a game-time decision."

Regardless of the reason for Cowher's secrecy, preseason openers aren't for the Jim Browns of the world anyway. They're for the Dante Browns, the Verron Haynes and the Willie Parkers.

These are the back-ups who are hungrily looking to run the ball for the Steelers on Saturday night at 7:30 against the Lions.

Haynes, a third-year player, announced his intentions on the day he reported to camp. He wore a shirt that read, in big, bold letters, "Give me the ball and I'll take it."

The 5-foot-8, 222-pound Haynes is carved like a Mr. Olympia bodybuilder and is eager to prove he's recovered from a knee injury that ended his season early last December.

The Steelers have even more depth behind Haynes. Dante Brown, is familiar to Steelers fans after leading the team in rushing last preseason. The other back, rookie free agent Willie Parker, is unfamiliar to most fans, but not to those who clamored for him to play more last season at North Carolina.

Parker is easily the Steelers' fastest running back, and he could be the fastest player on the team. He claims to have run the 40-yard dash in 4.2 seconds, "but I run a 4.3 consistently," he said.

Parker was timed by Steelers scouts in 4.3 seconds at North Carolina's pro day last spring. Yet, he was undrafted. He's hoping to open some eyes Saturday night in Detroit.

"I'm excited," Parker said with emphasis. "It's another opportunity for me and I'm really excited about playing this game, the game I love, and I'm really excited."

Parker (5-10, 209) rushed for 355 yards as a freshman at UNC, and then 400 yards as a sophomore. He added another 131 on 19 carries against Auburn in the Peach Bowl as a sophomore, but his numbers began to decline his junior (236) and senior (181) seasons. He wasn't hurt; he wasn't in trouble off the field; he wasn't behind in his studies.

"My running back coach made it hard for me all throughout college," Parker said. "As soon as he got there he just made it so hard for me. Everything I did was wrong. He used to always tell me I had the most talent and everything, but that don't mean the person with the most talent gonna play. He said I gotta do a lot of things off the field, just a lot of things."

Parker was asked if he had trouble learning the plays.

"Nah, it wasn't nothing with the plays; it wasn't none of that," he said. "My coach just had a thing with me. You could ask anybody. All the fans used to be wondering 'Why Willie Parker ain't playing? He the best. Why this? Why that?' It just didn't happen, but I thank the man up above for giving me another chance, another opportunity, to play the game that I love."

The rumor being passed around reporters is that Parker is a fumbler. But he hasn't fumbled yet in training camp, and claims to have fumbled only twice in college.

"How can I be a fumbler when I didn't hardly play?" he said. "They used to make a lot of excuses when the fans used to like bring in their little questions to ask on TV, like 'Why Willie don't do this? Why Willie don't do that?' But how can I be a fumbler when I ain't even hardly touched the ball?"

Brown was in a similar situation during his college days. After enjoying early success at Memphis, Brown (6-1, 215) was demoted as a senior to make room for a highly recruited freshman. Brown was passed over in the draft and signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent. He led the team in preseason rushing last year with 106 yards on 24 carries.

"My approach to this camp and preseason was to do even better than last year," Brown said. "If I can do that, that will for sure, I think, open some eyes around here."

Brown was cut by the Steelers last August, but was signed to their practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster on Sept. 15 and remained with the team the remainder of the season but didn't play.

Brown is in the midst of another outstanding camp. Wednesday night, in a practice at Greensburg's Offutt Field, Brown made a cut during the goal-line drills that left Ike Taylor and those in attendance gasping.

"I think that's one of my strengths," Brown said. "I've got quick feet so I can mislead a defensive player into thinking I'm going one way and then I cut back another way."

Brown has the best cut-back ability of all Steelers running backs, while Haynes is the strongest and Parker is the quickest. Preseason openers are the time and place to see all of it.

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