The foundation of Chris Rainey’s NFL career couldn’t have been constructed any better even if it was made of steel.
Judging by the significant amount of reps that the running back is getting in Pittsburgh’s training camp, he figures to be a big part of the Steelers’ offense. And there are numerous reasons why.
First of all, new offensive coordinator Todd Haley had a special plan for Rainey when Pittsburgh took him in the fifth round of April’s draft. While with the Chiefs, the unpredictable play-caller hand-picked a similar SEC back in Dexter McCluster, who is comparable to Rainey in that he is dangerous in open space. Haley will likely use Rainey the same way he used McCluster, lining him up in the backfield and in the slot as a receiver.
Rainey’s versatility was evident at Florida as he finished his UF career with 3,948 all-purpose yards (fourth in school history) and 2,464 rushing yards (ninth on the Gators’ all-time list).
He hasn’t showcased his full repertoire yet. So far, most of Rainey’s touches have come in the form of carries both inside and outside the tackles, although many are going to the outside. That’s a product of Rainey’s 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame, which many speculated would limit his usefulness as a pro.
Luckily for Rainey, it won’t in this situation.
Rainey is the only speedy threat that the Steelers have in the backfield, so his opportunities to at least break big plays in Pittsburgh have been there from the start. The team has several young and talented running backs, including Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay and Baron Batch. Third-year back Dwyer (Georgia Tech) and second-year back Clay (Wisconsin) were stars in college but haven’t earned much playing time in their NFL careers so far. More notably, neither of them has speed on par with Rainey, who claims he’s faster than holdout receiver Mike Wallace.
But those are just a couple reasons why the load of touches Rainey is seeing in camp are no mirage. Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers’ featured back for the last three years, will likely miss the entire season as he recovers from an ACL tear in his right knee that he suffered in last year’s regular-season finale. That’s forced Isaac Redman to be the team’s No. 1 back this season, opening the door for Rainey and the rest of the stable to contribute.
Another thing working in Rainey’s favor is the fact that he’s been reunited with former Gator and Dreadnaught teammate, Maurkice Pouncey, the Steelers’ center and a close friend of Rainey’s. Two other Gator offensive linemen, Marcus Gilbert and Max Starks, are also on the team. On top of that, Pittsburgh made the O-line its top priority in the draft when it used its first two selections on guard David DeCastro of Stanford (first round) and tackle Mike Adams of Ohio State (second round).
Yet another star has aligned for Rainey to succeed at the next level.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has said that the running backs fighting for playing time have to stand out on special teams before they get significant playing time at running back. That’s not a problem for Rainey, who proved himself to be a deadly returner at Florida while setting an SEC record with six blocked punts. Pittsburgh special teams coach Al Everest has said the team would give Rainey a look on punt return, punt block and defensive field goal.
A new offensive coordinator eager to use his skill set. A team with no home-run hitting running back other than him. An injury to the team’s star back. A tight relationship with the team’s center. And a coach who’s emphasizing special teams as the way to see the field.
It doesn’t really get any better for Rainey.