PITTSBURGH – Josh Harris spent three days in May expecting the phone to ring with an NFL executive on the other end telling the former Wake Forest running back he'd been drafted.
The call never came. In a way, it might have ended up a blessing.
Six months later, the kid nobody wanted is now a surprising Plan B in Pittsburgh. Harris will serve as the primary backup to budding star Le'Veon Bell after the Steelers (7-4) cut LeGarrette Blount last week. From unwanted to the practice squad to the active roster on a team with serious playoff intentions in a matter of weeks.
And Harris thought his 4.46 40-yard dash time was fast.
"It's not like these opportunities come to all people, so I have a very unique opportunity to show what I can do, and I have to take full advantage of it," Harris said. "I need to show people that my time here has been worth it, and I can help this team in whatever way they need me."
Even if how much the Steelers will need the 23-year-old is uncertain. Blount found himself out of a job — albeit for about 48 hours — last week when he trotted off the field with the clock still ticking in a victory over Tennessee, a very public way of protesting his diminished role in the offense. Don't expect Harris to provide that kind of drama.
Third downs. Special teams. Goal line. Harris would grab the kicking tee during a timeout if asked.
"We really haven't looked at the ways I can help this team," Harris said. "But once we do that then we can go from there."
It beats the alternative. Harris ran for 2,195 yards and 19 touchdowns in four seasons at Wake Forest and figured he'd a look. When 256 names were announced at the draft and his wasn't among them, Harris figured he'd get claimed as a rookie free agent in the mad scramble to fill roster spots That didn't happen either and Harris went to Twitter to vent, blaming the Demon Deacons' coaching staff for "slanderous remarks" that discouraged teams from picking him up.
"I just heard from my agent that there were some people from my school who aren't at the school anymore who talked with NFL coaches and said some things that kind of made them shy away," Harris said. "I'd surely like to know what was said, but that actually is so far in the past right now."
Harris signed with the Steelers at the start of training camp as a practice body and ran for 41 yards in the preseason, including a 31-yard sprint that showcased the speed within. He didn't make the final cut as the Steelers stuck with Bell, Blount and third-round pick Dri Archer but quickly agreed to join the practice squad. Serving as fodder for the starting defense as part of the scout team, Harris made a believer out of Bell.
"He's real explosive and strong," Bell said. "And fast, real fast, and he's gotten better each and every week. I've seen it, and I think he can pick up things right now. He just has to get comfortable in our offense, and he'll be fine."
The anger of getting passed over in the draft has subsided. If his phone had buzzed in May, who knows what team would have been on the other end of the line.
"We got a chance to pick Pittsburgh, and now I have a chance to play and show what I can do," he said. "And I can't ask for anything more than that."
The Steelers aren't asking for more. In Bell they have one of the most versatile and hard-working backs in the league, one they'll rely on heavily as the calendar flips to December. Harris is OK with that. He knows he's the understudy, and a dedicated one. Though he's actually a year older than Bell, Harris finds himself more student than peer.
"I've been able to learn from him," Harris said. "He always pays attention in meetings and works so hard on and off the field. So, it's easy for me to follow his example, and I need to make sure I follow him. "
NOTES: Cornerback Ike Taylor returned to practice on Monday after missing the last two months with a broken right forearm, though Taylor said it's still unclear whether he can play on Sunday against New Orleans. ... Safety Troy Polamalu (knee), linebacker Ryan Shazier (ankle) and Jarvis Jones (wrist) also practiced.
Freelance writer Dale Grdnic contributed to this report.
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