PITTSBURGH - They don't celebrate NFL backups in southern New Jersey. Trust Isaac Redman on this.
When the Pittsburgh Steelers running back returned to his hometown of Paulsboro, N.J., during the offseason after his rookie year in the NFL in 2009, people just kind of shrugged their shoulders.
Three years later, things have changed. The overweight kid from Division II Bowie State who barely made the practice squad during that miserable first season is now the centerpiece for a running attack geared at taking pressure off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Mirror file photo by J.D. Cavrich
Isaac Redman could get a lot of carries this season under offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
And the fine folks in Paulsboro know it.
"I get a lot different treatment now when I'm home than I did when I was on the practice squad," Redman said with a laugh.
It's heady territory for a player who spent his first training camp with the Steelers trying to get coach Mike Tomlin to remember his name.
It wasn't until Redman beat the first-team defense for a series of touchdowns during a goal line drill that he got Tomlin's attention, nicknaming the 6-foot, 230-pound Redman "Red Zone." It's a fond memory of a day that probably saved Redman's career. Fast-forward to 2012, and Redman's perseverance has paid off with the opportunity he knew would come eventually.
Redman practiced with the first string during the second day of organized team activities on Wednesday and will get the initial crack at replacing injured starter Rashard Mendenhall, who remains out indefinitely while recovering from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
Mendenhall is optimistic he can return at some point this fall, but even he's not willing to put his recovery on any sort of timeline.
"I'm just focused on getting back to 100 percent," Mendenhall said. "At what point I do that, whenever that is, I don't know."
That leaves it up to Redman to lead the backfield as it transitions to new offensive coordinator Todd Haley's diverse offense.
Haley helped the Arizona Cardinals to the Super Bowl with an offense that featured Kurt Warner at quarterback throwing it to Pro Bowlers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin then took the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs with a run-first attack that leaned heavily on Jamaal Charles.
The Chiefs ran for an NFL-high 2,627 yards in 2010, a number the Steelers haven't reached since going 15-1 in 2001.
While Roethlisberger and his receivers have wrung their hands about how long it will take to master Haley's playbook, Redman rubbed his hands in glee.
The Steelers evolved into a passing team under former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. The pendulum may be swinging back now.
"[The Chiefs] were running the ball a lot and they were toting it too," Redman said. "Hopefully when we get out here and we start hitting on all cylinders and those young guys get going ... we'll see how this thing looks."
Redman, for one, looks ready for the job. Bogged by weight issues early in his career, Redman understands being an NFL starter isn't a part-time job. He paid better attention to his diet in the offseason and increased his cardio workload to stay fresh.
He's been a workhorse before. Redman holds all the major rushing records at Bowie State, including yards in a season, career yards and carries in a game. His NFL workload hasn't been nearly as heavy, all that means to him is that he's fresh.
Redman - who acknowledges his job is to pound between the tackles, not blow by defenders - certainly looked fresh in Pittsburgh's 29-23 playoff loss to the Denver Broncos. He rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries, with 77 yards coming in the second half. He also caught two passes, a skill he'll likely need as part of Haley's complex scheme.
Redman snagged a couple of screen passes during drills on Wednesday, but just laughed when asked if he was the back spotted hauling in a rainbow down the sideline from Roethlisberger on one play.
"That wasn't me, that was (Chris) Rainey," Redman said. "I don't move that fast."
He won't need to so long as he keeps moving forward. The Steelers struggled in the red zone at times last season, in part because of an inability to get tough yards on the ground near the goal line.
Adding a fullback to the mix should help. The Steelers are converting tight end David Johnson to fullback this season, a move they hope creates the kind of thrust needed in tight spaces.
It's the kind of environment that Redman thrives in. His determination helped him make the team three years ago. The Steelers will rely on it to help them contend in 2012.
At age 27, Redman understands he's a late bloomer. He hardly cares so long as he blooms.
"Coming into the season there's always some type of nerves," Redman said. "But once you step on the field and start performing, all the nerves just go away and you just try to perform at a high level, which I'm sure I'm going to do."