Snapshot: Noah Herron

In his final season at Northwestern, Noah Herron rushed for 1,381 yards and 14 touchdowns, while catching 36 passes for 351 yards and another score.

In his only season at Ohio State, Maurice Clarett rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 scores, catching just 12 passes for 104 yards and two other touchdowns.

At the NFL combine, Kansas State's diminutive Darren Sproles finished in a tie for a fastest time among ball carriers in the 20-yard shuttle. The man who tied him with a 3.97-second time? Herron.

And California speedster J.J. Arrington turned in a 60-yard shuttle time of 11.07 seconds, second only to Ryan Grant of Notre Dame. That 11.07-second 60-yard shuttle was matched by … you guessed it, Herron.

So why was Arrington a second round pick (Arizona), Clarett a third (Denver) and Sproles a fourth (San Diego), while Herron nearly went undrafted? Herron wonders the same thing.

"Quite a few teams said they had me possibly late third, and fourth and fifth round," said Herron, the second of two seventh-round draft picks by the Steelers in April. "Making it all the way to the seventh was a bit of a surprise. I was starting to talk with some teams about free agency. A lot of teams that I was talking to were surprised that I was still available. It was something that obviously I had to consider, which was right in front of me. I was blessed enough to get picked up late."

Perhaps Herron's fall down the draft charts can be attributed to one thing – his 40-yard dash time of 4.73 at the NFL combine. Herron knew he wouldn't turn anyone's head with his 40 time. But he turned in a better mark on that day than Clarett did – though the former Ohio State star would run a 4.67 at his personal workout.

"I guess people questioned my 40 time, which is pretty average," said Herron. "I think it really just had to do with my 40 time, but everything worked itself out."

Because of that lack of straight-ahead speed, many teams felt Herron was better suited to play fullback, even though he was Northwestern's primary ball carrier and hasn't done any lead blocking.

The Steelers, however, viewed Herron as a tweener in the same mold as Verron Haynes. Haynes, drafted by the Steelers as a fullback out of Georgia, has turned into the team's utility man, backing up fullback Dan Kreider while also serving as a third-down back and special teams player.

"He has the size to do it and the athletic ability to do it," said Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak of Herron's ability to play fullback.

"He's never been asked to do it. He does a pretty good job for (Northwestern) as far as pass protection, but you don't see him do any run blocking. If you remember, when we got Verron [Haynes], that's what we did with Verron his first year. Verron played both spots. He played a little bit of fullback and he played halfback. So we're going to try to do the same thing with him."

One thing the Steelers don't question is Herron's ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, something he excelled at in Northwestern's spread offense. Even though the Wildcats had 1,000-yard rusher Jason Wright in 2003, they wanted to get Herron on the field. That meant lining up at wide receiver at time for him. Even so, Herron had four 100-yard rushing games as a junior before becoming the primary ball carrier as a senior.

"For me, though, it wasn't about being in the shadows (of Wright)," he told the media at the Big Ten media day last year. "It was about playing different positions to help the team. Jason ran the ball more, I played receiver more. And we switched those roles sometimes."

The Steelers love that versatility.

"He catches the ball very well," said Hoak. "They used that offense where they spread people out and there are signals to the bench and all of that. His junior year, he played some in the slot and he catches the ball real well. Like I said, he's a good, solid football player. He's played in the shotgun; he's played behind the center in the I-formation. So he knows what he's doing."

The Steelers have a spot open for a fullback on their roster somewhere, either as a practice squad player or as a backup to Kreider if that player proves to be valuable on special teams. J.T. Wall, who filled that spot the past two years signed with Indianapolis and was no longer eligible for the practice squad anyway. That means there's a spot for Herron or undrafted rookies Zach Tuiasosopo or John Kuhn.

Of the three, Tuiasosopo may have upper hand because he was primarily a fullback in college. But Haynes is also an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2005 season, so the Steelers might keep both a fullback and a utility man around if they show enough during the offseason workouts, which began anew with voluntary coaching sessions this week.

"I haven't ever done it so it's something that I have to get used to doing," said Herron of playing fullback. "I'm just thrilled with the opportunity."

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