PITTSBURGH -- Mike Wallace had no idea the Steelers would be calling his name.
The rookie receiver spent so much time with the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans leading up to April’s NFL draft that, in Wallace’s mind, he was prepared to pack his bags for one of those two cities. Both teams were in desperate need of receivers and liked Wallace’s potential.
But after the first day of the draft passed and no one called, the Mississippi product was shocked when the defending champions selected him in the third round, No. 84 overall.
Steelers receivers coach Randy Fichtner met with Wallace on two brief occasions last spring: Once during Wallace’s pro day and at another meeting during the combine. According to Wallace, there was never a strong indication Pittsburgh would draft him.
"It wasn’t even on my mind to come to the Steelers," Wallace said. "But I feel like everything happens for a reason. I was excited because it was a good team -- the Super Bowl champs -- and they got two great guys to learn from in Santonio [Holmes] and Hines [Ward]. So I'm just trying to make sure I get in and fit in with those guys."
A month into the season, Wallace has been the biggest second-day draft surprise in the AFC North. He is playing behind Ward and Holmes as the team’s No. 3 receiver and ranks third with the Steelers in receiving yards (194) and fourth in receptions (14).
Wallace, who also might be the fastest player on the team, made his longest catch of the season when he recently zipped past the Cincinnati Bengals' secondary for 51 yards. The play was part of his seven-catch, 102-yard performance in Week 3. He also had two catches for 47 yards in last weekend’s 38-28 victory over the San Diego Chargers.
As Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl MVP receivers Holmes and Ward get most of the attention, Wallace has quietly taken advantage of his opportunities.
"He’s a great talent," Ward said of his rookie teammate recently. "Teams are going to have to start paying attention to him."
Wallace is not your typical first-year player.
The rookie is 23, which is one year older than Pittsburgh's 2008 first-round pick Rashard Mendenhall. Wallace also played four years, including 10 games as a true freshman, in the tough SEC.
Wallace’s receiving statistics in college didn’t jump out compared to some of his rookie peers. But so far the third-round pick has more receptions and yards than first-round receivers Darrius Heyward-Bey of the Oakland Raiders and Jeremy Maclin of the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wallace went through three offensive coordinators during his college career at Ole Miss, which probably hurt his production. But Wallace also says learning different systems was a blessing in disguise because he ran many of the routes required in the NFL.
"I also had two different head coaches," Wallace said of his college career. "We had switched so much that I had to run into some of the concepts [in Pittsburgh] that we were already doing."
Wallace also has life experience. His hometown of New Orleans was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 while Wallace was in college. The roof of his family’s home caved in and they were forced to relocate to Dallas for five months. Eventually Wallace’s family returned home to New Orleans, fixed the roof and replaced all the furniture. Wallace says everything is back to normal.
Overall the Steelers are happy with the production of their third-rounder. The team traded out of the second round last April for additional third-round picks, because it felt the same caliber of players might be available. The pick used on Wallace was acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos.
Pittsburgh rarely is a team where rookies get a lot of opportunities, but Wallace has quickly earned the trust of coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace was the team’s fourth receiver in training camp. But Limas Sweed’s struggles early in the season opened the door for Wallace to become a bigger part of the offense.
Wallace developed a reputation in college as a speedster who needed to sharpen his routes, but he has worked hard with Pittsburgh’s coaching staff to improve in that area and it’s paying off. In addition to his coaches, Wallace said Ward and Holmes also are staying on the rookie in practice.
Wallace understands their reasons.
"If I don’t know how to run my route, that’s hurting them too and that’s hurting the rest of the team," Wallace said. "So both of them are always on me about different things all the time. One of them might tell me about dipping my head, the other might tell me about my stride. Both of them are always picking at me, so I’m constantly trying to clean all of that up."
With Ward and Holmes doing the polishing, Wallace doesn't look like a rookie so far.