Kevan Barlow is competing with six-year veterans Najeh Davenport and Verron Haynes, as well as several free-agent rookies, to be the backup to starter Willie Parker this season. And like his time at the University of Pittsburgh, it's been an uphill battle all the way during training camp sessions this past week at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
"Personally, it's been a little tough for me, but sometimes you've got to swallow your pride,'' Barlow said. "And it can be a humbling experience, but I can't forget that hard work is what got me where I'm at today. And I just have to keep doing what I've been doing to get to the next step.
"I have to come out here and do my best to earn a spot on this team, but I'm still preparing myself like I am a starter. That's what I did the past years that I've been in the NFL, since 2001, so I've prepared mentally like I'm the No. 1 guy and that way you never take your eyes off that goal.''
Despite playing for the Walt Harris passing circus, Barlow ran for 1,053 yards as a senior, and he's the last Panthers running back to surpass the 1,000-yard mark. Barlow also had 20 career touchdowns at Pitt.
Barlow has had some success as a runner and pass-catcher in the NFL as well with a career-best 1,024 yards rushing and 35 receptions in 2003, along with 30 career rushing touchdowns, while Davenport has barely surpassed 1,000 career yards rushing and Haynes is a few hundred yards short of that mark. Barlow caught more than 30 passes during his final three seasons at San Francisco, the team that drafted him in the third round in 2001, but injuries hampered his progress with the New York Jets last season.
Where Barlow has come up a bit short is as a blocker. He has struggled in one-on-one blocking drills against blitzing linebackers and defensive backs, so he'll need to improve in that area to stick with the Steelers. But that doesn't mean Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson isn't happy to have several veteran players to choose from in his backfield.
"You enjoy the veteran players because you're getting a product that's tried and tested, and you tend to lean on those guys,'' Wilson said. "Kevan, he's still trying to work through all of the things that camp provides, but he's eager and he gives good effort. He knows how to play the game, and he's had some success in this league.
"So, I'm sure he'll get better as camp goes on, and I expect that we'll see some good things from him. Kevan knows how to run the ball, and he's been a good pass-protector over the years. And he's been a capable receiver out of the backfield. So, he's definitely a weapon and will get a lot of opportunities to show what he can do in the preseason.''
After his breakout NFL season in 2003, the 49ers went through several roster purges, and the results weren't good. They won just a handful of games during that stretch, and Barlow became a bruised and battered back during his final two seasons on the West Coast. Still, he contends that he has a lot of carries left in his legs.
"Actually, I feel pretty good,'' Barlow said. "LaDainian Tomlinson, we came out in the same year, Duce McAllister, Rudi Johnson, Travis Henry, he just signed a $50 million deal. So, I feel great. They can still do it, so why can't I. I got hurt last year, a pulled my hamstring, so I didn't take much of a pounding.
"But those last two years in San Francisco, they were pretty tough. We went 2-14 and 4-12, and I took a little bit of a pounding. I didn't have a good camaraderie with the guys on the offensive line, and we had some guys in there who didn't play much. So, things didn't go very well. But I'm physically and mentally together now, and I'm ready to show what I can do.''
And after six long years in California, it's just been great for Barlow to be back home.
"It's been fun to practice with these guys, a good group of guys, who have a lot of energy and enthusiasm,'' Barlow said. "It's a dream come true for me to be here, but I did think I had a chance to be drafted by Coach Cowher. He had me in the Senior Bowl and liked me, but it didn't work out. Now, I have a chance to make this team and play for my hometown team.
"We're just going out there and competing with each other. We try to have a lot of fun, too, because that's what it's all about. Sure, it's real serious business here, and you have to get a lot of work done. But it's good, healthy competition, too, and that's going to make this football team a lot better. And I feel like I have a good chance to be part of it.''
While Parker certainly would like to get more carries, as would any starter, he certainly respected what Barlow has accomplished in the NFL so far and what he has contributed to the Steelers.
"Kevan is going to be a good fit for us,'' Parker said. "And we're just all out there battling right now, so there's some good competition. ... I know it's different for him, not being the starter, but he has the right attitude. He wants to be the starter, and he's working hard to get there.''
For Barlow, it's the right direction to take at the crossroad in his NFL career.