Steelers rookie RB Samuels morphs from project to starter

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              Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels (38) is tackled by New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jaylen Samuels spent the months leading up to the 2018 NFL draft answering one question over and over again.

“People were like, ‘What position (are you) going to play?'” the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie said. “And I just kept saying ‘I’m going to play running back.'”

Not everyone believed him. The NFL included.

The NFL was so skeptical of the former North Carolina State star’s potential out of the backfield he was told shortly before the scouting combine that he wouldn’t be working out with the running backs but the tight ends. Samuels shrugged his shoulders, figuring it was better to be at the combine — even if it wasn’t your preferred position — than stuck at home watching it on TV.

Fast forward 10 months. They don’t ask Samuels where he fits anymore. Not after the 22-year-old lit up the New England Patriots for 142 yards rushing and 172 total yards in a victory over the New England Patriots last Sunday.

Samuels carried the ball 19 times — more than he can remember at any level of football — and caught a pair of passes, including a leaping 20-yard, fourth-quarter grab that helped the Steelers run some clock before adding a late field goal that pushed the margin to seven points.

There were the usual aches and pains on Monday, but nothing out of the ordinary after the heavy workload. Good thing, because Samuels figures to be just as busy when the Steelers (8-5-1) travel to New Orleans to face the NFC South champion Saints (12-2) on Sunday.

Newly minted Pro Bowler James Conner is still dealing with a sprained left ankle that’s forced him to miss the past two weeks, meaning Pittsburgh’s running game will be in the hands of a fifth-round pick who has quickly morphed from project to capable starter.

Samuels earned a spot out of training camp thanks to the way he embraced special teams and had found a small niche as a receiving threat — he’s N.C. State’s career leader in receptions (202), just ahead of former NFL wide receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Torry Holt — before Conner went down in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers. Samuels came in and caught a 10-yard touchdown pass on the next play.

His first NFL start didn’t go quite as planned. He managed just 28 yards on 11 carries in a stunning loss to the Oakland Raiders. The problem wasn’t so much Oakland’s defense or the iffy turf so much as Samuels’ own jitters.

“I felt like I wasn’t being patient enough, just being in a rush, hurry up and get to the hole and try to get there,” Samuels said. “(Against the Patriots) I could definitely feel it all sorting out. The holes are just opening. I just felt smoother and it felt like it was more my game.”

A game that not every college coach that recruited Samuels out of high school understood. UNC brought the Charlotte native in for a camp and had him practice with the linebackers.

“I was like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I going backward'” Samuels said. “I need to be going forward with the ball.”

N.C. State assistant coach Eddie Faulkner saw the potential and during the recruiting process pointed out all the varied ways the Wolfpack could use him. Samuels spent four record-breaking years doing a little bit of everything.

Running back. Fullback. H-back. Tight end. Slot receiver. His polished route running was immediately apparent to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger when Pittsburgh used its second pick of the fifth round on Samuels.

“He has really good hands, soft hands you can really throw it all over the place and he can make plays,” Roethlisberger said.

“I think he showed that this week that we can put him out there and we can do some things with him and hopefully we are just scratching the surface.”

While Steelers coach Mike Tomlin jokingly replied “who said I had confidence?” when asked what gave him faith Samuels could produce, he’s not particularly surprised by what he saw against the Patriots. The shakiness in Oakland was understandable. The bounce back versus New England was promising.

“There are oftentimes when you walk into stadiums, particularly as a young guy, it is a first time for a lot of things,” Tomlin said. “And I am sure as he continues to step into stadiums with a significant role for us he’ll check some boxes and do some things he hasn’t done before, but that’s just a very natural thing in terms of a young player.”

One who no longer has to deal with questions about where he fits.

NOTES: Conner and LB Bud Dupree (knee) did not practice Wednesday. … S Terrell Edmunds (concussion) was limited. … DE Cam Heyward (knee) was a full participant. … Roethlisberger and C Maurkice Pouncey were given the day off.