LATROBE, Pa. — At this point two years ago, Baron Batch was the darling of training camp, but now the Pittsburgh Steelers running back is fighting for a job.
A seventh-round draft pick in 2011, Batch put on a show nearly every time he touched the ball. He ran hard between the tackles, was elusive in the open field and caught everything thrown his way as a receiver out of backfield.
Steelers fans and media in attendance at Saint Vincent College that year were buzzing about the Midland High School grad and Texas Tech product. There didn’t appear to be any scenario where Batch wouldn’t make the final roster.
“I wouldn’t say we were surprised by Baron, but he certainly exceeded our expectations,’’ Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. “We thought he could be a good back, and we still believe he’ll be a good back for us. But he really did a lot of good things in that first camp as a rookie.’’
Then, tragedy struck. There was a lot of rain that year, and the Steelers practiced a considerable amount on the artificial surface they had built some years earlier. Late in the final camp practice on that field, Batch ripped off a long run. His left knee did not make the entire distance intact. He eventually had season-ending surgery and began the long road back.
Just when he was working his way back into shape last season, he suffered a right arm injury and was placed on injured reserve near the end of November. Once 2013 rolled around, things surely would brighten for Batch. Instead, the Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell in the second round and signed veteran third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling, which made Batch’s future uncertain.
“It’s all about perspective,’’ Batch said recently during his third Steelers training camp. “Every negative thing or hardship, you can take a couple different ways. You could say that you really got screwed over in that case, or you could take it as a learning experience and make something better out of it.
“There have been a few tough times in my life, but I’ve always tried to take them in stride, learn from them and become a better person, a stronger person, because of them. All those things that I’ve acquired over the years from those hardships are priceless, and I’ve persevered through them.
“That’s what life’s all about, getting through the best way that you can and moving forward,’’ Batch added. “I wouldn’t want my life to be easy. That would be boring, wouldn’t it? When I’m gone, it would be fine with me if all people said was that even though he might not have had it easy, he never quit.’’
Batch has his work cut out for him this year. The Steelers backfield is crowded with Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Bell, Stephens-Howling, speedy Curtis McNeal, Batch and fullback Will Johnson.
It’s not certain if Johnson will count toward the backs or the tight ends when the Steelers set a final 53-man roster, but the club generally keeps four running backs. Some believe that group likely will be composed of Redman, Bell, Stephens-Howling and Batch.
Dwyer has not played any special teams, and his work ethic has been questioned in the past. Batch comes up short in neither area. McNeal basically has no chance.
“When you go 8-8, there are a lot of areas that need to improve,’’ Batch said. “Running the football is high on that list. The Steelers identified that as an issue, so they drafted a running back in the second round to emphasize it. We obviously have to run the ball better, and our entire room took it personally. There’s a lot of talent in that room, and we all compete extremely hard.
“We want to see the other guy do well. Sure, we know there’s only so many spots, so that’s some serious business. Somebody’s going to be out of a job for a while once the season begins, but we help each other and push each other. That makes us all better players, and the Steelers get a good group of backs in the end. So, we embrace that competition and look forward to it.’’
Batch finished with the modest totals of 25 carries for 49 yards and his first NFL touchdown. He also had four catches for 31 yards and added four special teams tackles. Those numbers need to increase for Batch to play this year.
“I know what I can do and what I need to do,’’ Batch said. “We’re all working hard to make this team, but nobody’s stepping over somebody else to get where they want to go. That’s never how it’s been done here, as far as I know. I’ve only been here a few years (2011), but the older guys always help the younger ones. For example, Mewelde (Moore) was a huge help to me in my rookie camp.
“I supposedly was drafted to eventually replace him, but he didn’t see it that way. He helped me as much as possible. Red (Redman) will tell you that, too. When somebody helps you like that, it makes you want to pay it forward to a guy younger than you who needs some guidance, whatever that might be.
“You know, when someone who you’re competing with and, basically, against sincerely wants you to do well and learn the best way to do things, that’s invaluable,’’ Batch added. “So, players move in and out of this league, but I always want to be known as a guy who did everything that he could to help his teammates be successful. That’s the legacy I want.’’
No matter how this season plays out for Batch, he’ll always be remembered as one of the good guys to come through this Steelers franchise.