Samuels enjoys moment
PITTSBURGH — 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.”