Pitt's Stephens-Howling happy to play second banana

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
LeSean McCoy's star-making debut for Pittsburgh season was a great story -- unless you happened to be LaRod Stephens-Howling.

Stephens-Howling had started 14 of the previous 15 games at tailback for the Panthers, leading them in rushing in both 2005 and 2006. Then a freshman came along and cut his carries by more than half, stealing all the attention and headlines in the process.

"I'm not going to say it was easy," Stephens-Howling said. "No running back is ever going to just give up his spot and say, 'Oh, well.' It took some time for me to adjust and figure out what my role was and do whatever was best for the team."

However difficult that adjustment must have been, Stephens-Howling never complained publicly. He has become one of Pitt's most respected leaders for how he has sacrificed himself for the team. And he's still very productive.

The senior ranks eighth in the Big East in all-purpose yards with 101.8 per game. He's averaging 5.4 yards per carry, a full yard better than McCoy, while returning kickoffs at a clip of 22.1 yards per attempt. At Syracuse last week, he ran for 71 yards and scored two touchdowns in the second half to complete a comeback 34-24 win.

Head coach Dave Wannstedt awarded Stephens-Howling a game ball after that performance, not just because of his rushing but also for the three special teams tackles he made. He's playing on punt and kickoff coverage teams for the first time this year. Wannstedt gushingly calls him "the most underrated player in the Big East."

"I cannot say enough good things about LaRod," Wannstedt said. "If there's ever been an example of a team player, a guy willing to do whatever and just wanting the team to win without getting caught up in personal accolades, it's LaRod."

Wannstedt toyed with putting McCoy and Stephens-Howling in the backfield together during training camp, but it's yet to happen in a game. Right now, they offer different looks to a defense and will give South Florida something to think about for Thursday's night's game in Tampa.

McCoy, who ran for 1,328 yards as a freshman, is the more physical of the two at 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds. Stephens-Howling is the shiftier one at just 5-foot-7 and 180, though he says he can bench press 340 pounds.

"He can break out of tackles because of his size," Stephens-Howling said of McCoy. "That's one thing I don't have. I try to avoid tackles."

Having a rookie supplant a veteran can cause a rift on a team. But Stephens-Howling never let that happen by making sure to tutor McCoy. The two are roommates on every road trip and are close friends.

"Ever since he came in, I've been trying to teach him not so much the physical part of football but more mental things," Stephens-Howling said. "Sometimes people can get a little big-headed and act like they can't listen to what anybody tells them once they get in a position like he did. But he always listens to what I have to say. That's one of the good things about him."

"I owe LaRod a thanks for everything because last year I didn't know anything and he helped me out, led the way for me," McCoy told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August. "He really took me in and put me under his wing, like I was a little brother. I tell him all the time, he's the big dog, I'm the pup. It doesn't matter to me if he carries the ball or I carry the ball, because if he succeeds and our team succeeds, then I am succeeding as well."

Stephens-Howling got up and spoke to the entire team this preseason as one of the senior leaders. His message? Take advantage of any opportunity to play and help the team any way possible. It was something his actions had already said loud and clear.