Though James Saxon’s dismissal came as a surprise, James Conner told reporters he’s excited to work with new running backs coach Eddie Faulkner. Speaking to media at the Pro Bowl, he says he’s briefly spoken with Faulkner and also talked to Jaylen Samuels, coached by Faulkner at NC State.
“He used to play running back at Wisconsin,” Conner told Steelers.com when asked what he knew of his new coach. “At NC State. Jaylen said all good things about him. I talked to him. Excited to get to work with him.”
Not only did Faulkner play football at Wisconsin, he briefly spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers as a UDFA in 2001. One concern some share is the fact he didn’t coach running backs at NC State. He was listed as the tight ends/fullbacks/special team coordinator and eventually added a recruiting title to his resume (he recruited Samuels).
But running back has been part of his background for the majority of his career. Aside from playing the position, his first coaching job was at Anderson University, coaching running backs there in 2002. From 2005 to 2008, he coached backs at Ball State and still kept the title after a two-year stint as their offensive coordinator. Briefly, he was even the college’s interim head football coach He served as the running backs coach for a year at Northern Illinois at 2011.
Interestingly, and maybe this fact was reported before and I missed it, Faulkner was supposed to become the running backs coach at Pitt, hired January 2012. For unknown reasons, he resigned less than a month later to take the job at Wisconsin. Presumably, he bolted to be able to return to his alma mater, though he wound up spending just one year there.
Still, they’ll be big shoes for him to fill, replacing a coach in Saxon generally regarded as someone more than competent and a guy the players liked. He was well-known for keeping in touch with players released by the team, like Jawon Chisholm, who spent time in camp with the Steelers several years ago. Cut in the spring, Saxon told him to keep working out, stay ready, and eventually earned a contract after injuries struck in Latrobe.
Clearly, the on-field results were impressive too. Under his coaching, five different Steelers’ backs – Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, DeAngelo Williams, Conner, and Samuels – rushed for 100+ yards in a game. That’s second most of any team since he took over in 2014. Faulkner will be tasked with getting Conner back to the level he showed the first half of the year, progressing Samuels from his strong second half of the season, and likely, working with a new #3 who currently isn’t on the team’ roster.