LaRod Stephens-Howling has emerged as a Pro Bowl candidate on special teams.
Exactly how high can you rate a college running back on your draft board when he didn't even start? When he didn't even return kicks? When he stood a shade taller than 5-foot-6?
Something about LaRod Stephens-Howling felt right, though, every time Steve Keim came across him. The Cardinals' director of player personnel originally was looking at the University of Pittsburgh's LeSean McCoy in August of 2008, but he couldn't stop noticing Stephens-Howling flashing his talent.
Stephens-Howling then impressed Keim and assistant coach Mike Miller again in the spring during Pitt's workout. Then came the decision to fly Stephens-Howling – again, nowhere near a high- or even middle-round draft pick – in to Tempe for a pre-draft visit.
"The kid was great," Keim recalled. "He had an infectious smile and you just fell in love with his personality. If there was ever a guy who was going to overcome the physical limitations and his size and make it, it was going to be him because of his passion for the game."
There was selling to be done, even to spend only a seventh-round pick on Stephens-Howling. Eventually though, the Cards decided to take him, long after fellow running back Beanie Wells was selected in the first round.
The risk was minimal. The reward has been exactly what the Cardinals had hoped.
Stephens-Howling has turned into a Pro Bowl candidate on special teams, returning two kickoffs for touchdowns this season while averaging nearly 28 yards a return and leading the league in kick return yards. He is a gunner (outside man) on punt coverage and wedge buster on kickoff coverage, invaluable on both units. And he's turned into a weapon on offense, using his tremendous speed and shifty moves to his advantage.
All this for a man who broke down crying on draft day while talking to reporters, overwhelmed that he had made it to the NFL.
"I am surprised," Stephens-Howling said. "Sometimes I can't believe what is going on right now. At the same time I know I have worked for this my whole life so it's good to see it paying off."
Stephens-Howling had been shoved to the side at Pitt. McCoy came along after him and took Stephens-Howling's starting job, admittedly a blow. Stephens-Howling didn't sulk, however, and the way he handled the situation was another reason the Cardinals liked what he offered.
It didn't hurt the Cards weren't bringing back their own smaller third-down back, J.J. Arrington, so by the time Stephens-Howling was available, the Cards had a need.
By the time the Cards had seen a little of Stephens-Howling, they also had a belief.
"He's a resilient dude," said wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, also a Pitt product. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for small guys like (cornerback) Michael Adams, LaRod, because ever since they were small they were looked at as the small guy. They continued to fight and battle and persevere."
Keim said Stephens-Howling had the speed when he came out, but he wasn't the Panthers' top kickoff return man and when he did it, he wasn't nearly as dynamic has he has become on the NFL level.
Since the day he arrived, though, he has taken notes on everything, fellow running back Tim Hightower said. Stephens-Howling is quiet to be sure, saying little and remaining slightly uncomfortable in the spotlight – although "I'd much rather be successful with the attention on me than standing here all alone," he said – but his head is always where it needs to be.
"He has a quiet confidence," Hightower said. "He takes what he does seriously. He studies his craft. And that's a good combination for anybody."
On the draft board, Stephens-Howling probably didn't merit being much higher than he was at the time. That didn't mean he couldn't prove it wrong.
"Everybody roots for the underdog and I have played that role my whole life," Stephens-Howling said. "I definitely get that."
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