Rookie running back looking to find time behind Deuce, Bush

Published 10:56 pm Saturday, June 23, 2007

When a young Antonio Pittman played pickup football in the streets of Akron, Ohio, the player he sought to emulate was an undersized workhorse for the Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl squads of the 1990s.

“I used to like Thurman Thomas,” Pittman recalled after an offseason training session at the New Orleans Saints’ headquarters this past week. “He was a back that did a lot and didn’t receive a lot of credit. That’s how I’d paint my career at Ohio State: Did a lot, didn’t receive a lot of credit.”

In his last two seasons with the Buckeyes, the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Pittman rushed for 2,564 yards and 21 touchdowns. He lost only two fumbles in three seasons.

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Some scouts told him he was one of the elite running backs in this year’s draft, almost certain to go in the second or third rounds, so Pittman decided to skip his senior season and turn pro.

Yet nine teams looking for running backs passed on Pittman before the Saints — who already have Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush — took him in the fourth round, dimming his prospects for playing time in his rookie season.

Pittman suspected that he had been underestimated by those who passed him up because he played for a college powerhouse that was loaded with talent — including Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith and Heisman candidate Ted Ginn Jr. — and had gone 22-3 during the past two seasons. That sounded like a reasonable theory to Saints coach Sean Payton.

“Whether it was that people felt like he played with a real good surrounding cast and that he was a product of the offense, I’m not certain,” Payton said soon after the draft had ended. “It’s a good question. I don’t know specifically how to answer it other than we were glad he was still there when we picked.”

Pittman initially expressed shock at being taken by the Saints. The prospect of competing with respected veteran Aaron Stecker to be the third running back behind stars McAllister and Bush did not appeal to him.

But Pittman’s tune has changed as he’s gotten to meet Saints players, coaches, and even fans.

“It’s just like being at Ohio State. All the players are a big family, the coaches are very supportive and the fan base here is great,” Pittman said. “It’s just a color change — black and gold instead of scarlet and gray.”

After a three-day rookie camp in May, Pittman missed the Saints early June minicamp because of a conflict with Ohio State’s class schedule that under NFL rules prohibited him from training with New Orleans. He returned to the Saints on Tuesday, somewhat behind on learning plays but physically fit, Payton said.

“He looks like he’s in pretty good shape. The key for him is more mental,” the coach said. “He was decent. … He’s picking it up.”

Payton said Pittman’s morale appeared high, and that he hoped the rookie not allow himself to become distracted by thoughts of where he fits in.

“He needs to worry about his own performance and not try to figure out everyone else in front of him,” Payton said. “Just figure out how he can improve and let everything else take care of itself.”

It’s not the first time Pittman has found his reality to be far different than he initially envisioned. While starring as a tailback at Buchtel High School in Akron, Pittman dreamed of a college career at Michigan. The Wolverines he rooted for as a child ended up becoming his arch enemy when Ohio State recruited him harder and offered him a scholarship first.

He would not regret going to Columbus, where he punished Michigan for 139 yards and a touchdown when the Wolverines visited last November.

Now he’s hoping that coming to New Orleans will in the long run be a major boon to his pro career, even if it takes a while before he finds himself carrying the ball with regularity.

Bush is in the second year of a six-year contract, while McAllister is in the third year of his current seven-year extension. If Bush and McAllister both remain healthy, Pittman may not become a regular in the NFL unless the Saints decide to make a trade or release McAllister after a couple more seasons to save money.

For now, the Saints have indicated no intention to make any such personnel move.

“My expectations are just to learn as much as I can,” Pittman said. “Really, I don’t feel there’s a big burden on me to get rushed in right away. It’s less stressful when you can sit back and learn from two guys who’ve done it and, actually, when it’s your turn, you’ve seen it all and you can just go ahead and play it out. … I’m living out my dream by making it to the NFL and the rest is still to come.”

Pittman, one of their two fourth-round draft choices, agreed to a three-year contract on Thursday. No other terms were announced.

That makes six of the club’s seven 2007 draft picks under contract with more than a month to go until training camp.