Running back Walter Mendenhall is biding his time. Eventually, his opportunity will come. He just wants to be ready to make the most of it when it happens.
"I'm just an opportunistic-type of guy," Mendenhall said at the conclusion of the Rookie and Selected Vet OTAs on Friday. "Work hard because there's always going to be a time when you will get an opportunity. I just want to be prepared when the opportunity happens."
See, being buried on the depth chart might be new for a number of the rookies who were stars in high school and impact players in college. But Mendenhall only got to be "the guy" for a brief moment during his college career. He originally enrolled at Illinois where he redshirted during the 2004 season. He was named the Player of the Year for the offensive scout team.
In 2005, Mendenhall was bumped out of the rotation by his brother, Rashard, who was a true freshman. Also ahead of him on the depth chart was Pierre Thomas, who is now the starting tailback for the New Orleans Saints. Walter was moved to linebacker in the spring practices and played mostly on special teams in 10 games mainly. In 2006, he returned to running back and recorded a grand total of ... five snaps at the position. All season. As a junior in 2007, Mendenhall carried the ball a whopping four times for 57 yards - all in one game.
With just one year of eligibility left and the program looking towards the future, Mendenhall was at first told that his scholarship would not be renewed. Coach Ron Zook eventually offered Mendenhall the chance to come back, but he wanted to play. He transferred to Illinois State where the 6-0, 227-pound back still wasn't going to get a shot. Again, with just one year to play, the Redbirds wanted to get their young players on the field and allow them to develop.
But when starter Geno Blow suffered a shoulder injury, the Redbirds had no choice. Mendenhall finally got his opportunity. And boy, did he make the most of it.
Mendenhall rushed for 225 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter, three in all for the game, to lead Illinois State to a 54-44 win over Youngstown State. In just four starts, Mendenhall led the team with 796 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry as he earned Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year honors.
Mendenhall is a big and powerful runner who still has a lot of tread left on the tires. He's spoken to his younger brother, who was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year at Illinois and a first-round pick of the Steelers in 2008, to get an idea of what to expect. He's utilized the recent two weeks of practices without the veterans to absorb as much of the offense as he can so that when that opportunity comes, he'll be ready.
"It's challenging because in this offense you're a receiver, you're a fullback, you're a running back," Mendenhall said. "But I think the most difficult part is the (pass) protections. I think that's the thing that will make or break you. If you can't protect the quarterback, you're not going to be here."
While all eyes will be on the running backs at the top of the depth chart, Mendenhall is lurking. When the pads go on and the preseason gets underway, he knows that he will get his chance to shine. Finally.