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Memphis running back Curtis Steele acknowledges he took awhile to get adjusted to Memphis and Division I football.
Despite rushing for 83 yards in the opening game against Mississippi, Steele, a junior college transfer, averaged just 55 yards through his first three games.
"My transition was kind of hard at first because I came in, tried to rush things, tried to rush my plays and I really just had to slow things down," Steele said.
It wasn't until the Tigers played FCS opponent Nicholls State that the game started to slow down. Steele notched his first 100-yard performance as a Tiger and by the fifth game of the season against Arkansas State, Steele put his name on the map.
"After that, I just never looked back," Steele said.
Steele rushed for a season-high 203 yards on 22 carries against the Red Wolves. The next week he rushed for 101 yards against UAB.
Steele couldn't have found his rhythm at a better time. On Oct. 18 against East Carolina, the Tigers lost both their starting and backup quarterbacks to injury. A week later against Southern Miss, a third quarterback suffered a season-ending injury, leaving lightly tested junior Brett Toney as the only healthy quarterback and Memphis' season in peril.
That's when Steele took the reins of the team. He rushed for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Southern Miss and 123 yards and a touchdown a week later against SMU.
"I really felt like I had to carry the team because of our quarterback situation," Steele said. "I just knew I had to step up to the plate and make some big plays."
Steele finished 2008 with 1,223 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. His effort last season made him the anchor of Memphis' offense as it heads into the 2009 season. The difference this year is that he'll have some help in the backfield with the addition of Wisconsin transfer Lance Smith, who rushed for 436 yards in eight games with the Badgers in 2007.
"He has pushed me a lot because he is very competitive," Steele said of Smith. "He's going to give me a run for my money. He's going to help us out because he's very explosive, he has some good moves and he already has some experience at the D-I level. So he's going to bring great depth to the running backs."
It's a nice problem for Memphis to have. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton likened the duo to DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who share time in the Carolina Panthers' backfield. Williams was a former star running back with the Tigers.
"Lance provides us a tremendous amount and speed and talent from the Division I level and in this day and time it's really hard to play with one back," Helton said. "Two is always better than one. If you have two talented guys around you, you're twice as better off. So, we're really fortunate to have both Curtis and Lance in our backfield."