Slaton Preparing For Instant Impact As A Rookie
By Jordan Ingram
Tribune Sports Correspondent
Even though most NFL rookie running backs start off at the bottom, this football player isn’t slated to stay there.
Houston Texans third-string running back Steve Slaton is behind veterans Ahman Green and Chris Brown on the depth chart, but injuries could propel him to the top. Last season Green and Brown started a combined six games and only rushed for 722 yards.
The rookie running back doesn’t rule out the chance to receive playing time and believes staying ready is always the best policy.
“There’s always a possibility for anything,” Slaton said. “You always have to prepare yourself for those types of situations and I’ll be ready if that were to happen.”
In his short time in the NFL, Slaton has put his ego aside by allowing Green and Brown to take him under their wing. Green, heading into his 11th season, has rushed for over 1,000 yards six times and spent seven seasons playing alongside Brett Favre.
Making the transition from West Virginia University to the NFL, Slaton admits, isn’t an instant gratification process.
“I’ve learned from them how to practice [in training camp] going full-speed all the time and taking every rep as a mental rep,” said Slaton. “You’re not given a lot of reps being a younger guy so you have to take advantage of the chances you get and try to turn them into minutes.”
Another obstacle that Slaton will have in the NFL is proving to coaches that he’s not too small to receive playing time. At 5-foot-9, 201-pounds, the former Conwell-Egan star isn’t the ideal size for most starting running backs. Compared to the 6-foot, 218-pound Green and 6-foot-3, 220-pound Brown, Slaton isn’t the biggest player around. The backup shrugs the notion of his size aside and believes that his talent overshadows the issue.
“I know I can play but I have to prove to other people that I can,” said Slaton. “There’s plenty of guys in the league that are my size and have become starters that carry the load so I believe I can do it too.”
Adjusting to the zone-blocking scheme that Texans head coach Gary Kubiak has implemented will be a stark contrast to the spread offense Slaton flourished under at West Virginia. ESPN football expert Merrill Hoge is a critic of the smaller back and believes that Slaton has a lot to prove.
Being a former running back with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears himself during his eight-year NFL career, Hoge thinks adjusting to smaller running lanes is no easy task.
“Based off of [Green and Brown’s] history with injury the past two years, there’s a strong chance that he’ll have an opportunity,” said Hoge. “Can he be the main ball-carrier, I’m not sure, and I think that’ll be a lot to ask out of him. I watched some of those bowl games at West Virginia and he had massive holes to run through.”
Hoge added that it would be better for Slaton’s development if he learns from Green and Brown from the sideline this season.
“If the Texans can bring [Slaton] along slowly than it will be a much better situation for him, Hoge said. “If he’s asked to carry the load on all three downs I think he’ll struggle.”
Slaton is no stranger to learning from the sideline. Originally recruited by West Virginia as a defensive back, he started his true freshman year off as a fourth-string halfback. After rushing for 139 yards and scoring a touchdown in his first start against Rutgers, head coach Rich Rodriguez couldn’t keep him out of the lineup.
Paired with mobile quarterback Pat White, the duo formed one of the better rushing attacks in college football. Slaton’s 17 rushing touchdowns his freshman season (2005) was the third most in school history. After defeating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, Slaton’s 204 rushing yards propelled him to the Sugar Bowl MVP Award.
He felt that staying positive throughout the season allowed him to stay ready and be prepared for him eventual success.
“There’s always going to be negative and positive things that people say about you but as long as you keep the right attitude, that’s the best thing you can have,” Slaton said.
Slaton took the momentum his freshman year and posted a career-best 1,744 rushing yards, 7.0 rushing yards per carry, and 360 receiving yards his sophomore season. He also combined with White for 2,963 yards and 34 rushing touchdowns. His 2,104 all-purpose yards in 2006 set a West Virginia record.
Entering his junior season, Slaton came in with considerable buzz after being ranked No. 2 by ESPN on its Heisman Trophy Watch. In the eyes of many football experts, Slaton failed to live up to expectations after recording career lows in yards and yards- per-carry.
Slaton says that his decrease in numbers was more a product of better defense than diminished skills.
“Playing in the Big East Conference defenses are getting better and [coaches] have time to gameplan,” said Slaton. “From the two previous years, teams had time to watch film and watch how other teams watched me so they had a better chance.”
Rather than redeem himself as a senior, Slaton decided to enter the 2008 NFL Draft. Slaton said that the move was fulfilling a lifetime dream from when he was he was a young boy.
He made the best of his opportunity by amazing pro scouts at the NFL Combine with his dynamic receiving ability and athleticism. Slaton was able to post a 35’’ vertical jump and a 4.45 40-yard dash time that helped reestablish his stock among pro teams.
Even though his draft status was the highest his sophomore season, when his draft status was the highest, Slaton said that his junior year was important to his development. With other college players like Adrian Peterson that looked attractive to NFL teams as underclassmen, Slaton felt that the league changing its policy should depend on the particular player.
“It depends on how that player feels,” said Slaton. “I talked to my family and felt I was ready but they have to be able to make that decision for themselves.”
Originally pegged as a low first-round to early second-round pick, Slaton slipped to the Texans as a third-round pick. In a draft that was filled with talent at the running back position, Slaton was the 10th halfback selected behind the likes of Darius McFadden, Felix Jones, and Ray Rice.
Compared to McFadden and Rice, Hoge sees a distinct difference in the type of NFL running backs they’ll project into as opposed to Slaton. Hoge says that certain aspects of Slaton’s character weren’t tested enough with the Mountaineers that are keys to success as an NFL running back.
“In the NFL running backs have to have a physical nature about themselves and be willing to put their nose in there for three yards when there’s nothing there,” said Hoge. “If you’re not used to that then there’s going to be a tough learning curve as Reggie Bush is experiencing that right now. If [Slaton] gets a chance to play he’ll have to improve on the things he didn’t have to do in college.”