LATROBE – They are the mightiest little band of athletes on the practice field, these Steelers running backs.
And they are led by a man who by every right should be home taking it easy as his own wounds continue to heal.
But, Kirby Wilson isn’t wired that way, nor are the surviving members of his running back corps, a corps that’s been savaged by these injuries:
* Rashard Mendenhall, the No. 1 halfback, is on the PUP list, probably for at least six weeks into the season.
* David Johnson, the No. 1 fullback, was waived after tearing his ACL during the first series of the first preseason game.
* Isaac Redman, the No. 2 halfback, is on the sideline recovering from a groin injury that felled him during an aborted return Wednesday and caused him to undergo an MRI on Thursday.
* Jonathan Dwyer, the No. 3 halfback, injured his shoulder in the preseason opener and just returned to the practice field full-time on Thursday.
* John Clay, the No. 4 halfback, tore a quadriceps muscle at practice this week and has been waived.
* And of course Wilson, the gritty coach of the unit, is still easing back into his life after receiving substantial burns in a fire at his apartment last January.
What’s left are two rookies – Chris Rainey and fullback Will Johnson – and Baron Batch, who should be labeled a rookie after tearing his ACL early last August and missing the entire season.
And, of course, there’s Dwyer, who joined the group for Thursday’s practice. Fortunately he got through it in one piece.
“Coach (Mike) Tomlin calls us ‘The Refugees,’” said Dwyer. “So that’s what we are, ‘The Refugee Runners.’”
Dwyer thought about the words that had just escaped his mouth and said, “It’s really not a bad nickname. We’re fighting and clawing. We’re a group that likes to compete.”
Rainey of course is the cat-quick 178-pounder who’s about as tough as they come for NFL players that size.
And Batch is called “Mr. Mean” by teammates because “He’s a mean player, man,” said Dwyer. “Don’t let the size fool you. When he’s out there on that field he gets after it.”
Johnson, the fullback, is learning the position after sitting out the 2011 season and spending the 2010 season as West Virginia University’s H-back.
Yesterday, Johnson alternated with Jamie McCoy, a tight end who fits right in with The Refugees with his No. 80 jersey.
On the sideline is Jason Ford, an undrafted rookie who was just signed off the street.
Dwyer could end up being the “Bell Cow” of the group, a name he got to know as the feature back at Georgia Tech three years ago. Dwyer looked the part of a feature runner at yesterday’s practice when he caught, ran and blocked like a front-line “Bell Cow.”
“I’m just going to prepare for whatever,” Dwyer said of his expected role this season. “In this business you have to have an open mindset and be prepared for any aspect of it. Sooner or later down the line Rack (Mendenhall) is going to be back. He’s the head guy, regardless. Then roles change for everybody else.”
According to Redman’s MRI results, No. 2 could be back early next week. But until the leading rushers from last year return, it’ll be up the “The Refugees” to keep the sticks moving.
NOTES – OT Mike Adams (knee) returned to practice Thursday and was used as the second-team left tackle behind Marcus Gilbert. Another left tackle, Max Starks, donned his jersey and ran around the field during individual drills and will practice full-time on Friday. … OLB James Harrison underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Wednesday because it “just blew back up when I went running.” Harrison is hopeful of returning in time to play in the opener. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said “the prognosis is good for James.”