Willie Parker will start opener

PITTSBURGH – Willie Parker couldn't run inside well enough to suit his college coach, but Parker will open the season as the starter for an NFL offense that's synonymous with inside power running.

Steelers coach Bill Cowher has no qualms about Parker's ability inside, and all but officially pronounced him the starter for the Sept. 11 opener against the Tennessee Titans.

Cowher called Jerome Bettis "doubtful" for the game with a calf strain and said that while Duce Staley is on schedule to return from his knee injury, "I'd be hesitant to start a guy like Duce who hasn't had much practice time at all," Cowher said.

Cowher said Bettis has "an outside chance" of starting, but also said: "Right now -- and I talked to Verron (Haynes) and Willie -- if Jerome is unable to go, Willie Parker will start."

With two running backs already injured, Cowher won't use Parker in Thursday's final preseason game at Carolina. So Parker will enter the 2005 opener with 11 pre-season carries this year, 32 regular-season carries last year, and 46 pre-season carries last year when he broke in with the team as an undrafted rookie.

Parker's problems at the University of North Carolina are well documented and accounted for his meager 48-carry performance as a healthy senior. But in spite of Parker's lack of experience, Cowher doesn't feel the need to give him any more carries.

"No, I kind of liked the ones he's had," Cowher said.

Does Cowher see that as a problem?

"Not mine," he said.

Parker flashed his 4.28 40 speed Friday night when he ripped off a 51-yarder on a trap play through left guard on his only carry against the Washington Redskins.

The previous week, Parker had a 37-yarder and a 21-yarder among his 6 carries.

In his only extensive regular-season action, Parker gained 102 yards on 19 carries in the regular-season finale at Buffalo, where the NFL's No. 2 defense allowed Parker a 58-yard run.

Counting pre-season games, Parker has averaged a 20-yard gain once every 12 carries, so obviously, he can run. The next question for Cowher yesterday was: Can Parker run inside 20 to 25 times a game?

"We don't ask people to run differently," Cowher said. "Runners are runners. I never try to curtail a runner. Our offense has got enough plays that within the running play a ball carrier has a chance to express his ability. I think Willie has gotten more comfortable with the plays we've run. He's had a chance to watch some pretty good backs in front of him be patient on certain plays, hit it on certain plays.

"There are a lot of unknowns going in, but I think every player, until he plays, has a degree of unknown about him. I think he's earned this opportunity if indeed Jerome can't go. I'm not concerned; I'm rather excited."

As for Bettis, Cowher said the 33-year-old is "walking around … up on his toes" after leaving Friday's game with the non-contact injury.

Staley, who underwent an operation on a meniscus tear the first week of training camp, is running in the pool and said, "Right now things are starting to pick up for me."

So this is Willie Parker's world right now. The speedster who inexplicably sat the UNC bench after putting up big numbers in a few key games is on the cusp of the ultimate rags-to-riches story. Is he ready to carry the load?

"I'm going to stay away from that answer," Parker said. "You've just got to wait and see. I (am not) going to sit here and say a lot of stuff and then don't live up to the hype. I'm just going stay humble and keep doing what I'm doing.

"It's an exciting time, an exciting feeling, just to be ready to play a season opener. This time last year, I can't even remember where I was. I think I was just trying to make the team. The tables just turned, so I've got to be ready."

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