“I love Jaylen Warren. That’s my guy,” said Anthony McFarland when I uttered the title of this story to him one day after practice at St. Vincent College. “The way he runs, how physical he his; he’s not afraid to hit or get hit. I love him. I love his game. Just a real phsyical dude.”
I went to Najee Harris next.
“You should interview him,” said the catalyst of the black and gold stable of running backs.
Could this be a simple case of running backs for running backs propaganda or is there more baked into the Jaylen Warren cake than just the simple flour, sugar and eggs of a rookie looking to tote the ball in the big leagues?
I had to find out.
“What do you want to know,” questioned Warren, when I finally got him aside for the interview Najee Harris told me I wouldn’t regret.
That was a loaded question, Jaylen.
After all, the tale of a 5’8, 215-pound undrafted running back out of Oklahoma State via Utah State via JUCO is a convoluted one.
“No, I’m pretty simple,” continued the modest Warren. “It’s my goal – it’s everybody’s goal – to end up on that roster. I hope that whatever happens, I find a way to get a spot on that roster. That’s it. That’s all there is.
Oh no, there’s more.
A lot has happened since Warren said that, including a monstruous second week at camp, which culminated with an impressive run/pass/special teams campaign in the Steelers’ 32-25 preseason win over Seattle Saturday night. But before we put this thing into the oven, let’s see how the Jaylen Warren cake was mixed.
Utah isn’t exactly a powerhouse mecca for high school football talent, but Warren was the shiniest diamond to come out of the sand and mud of Salt Lake City. Warren led the nation with 3,099 rushing yards in his senior year at East High School.
That shattered a 37-year-old record in the state of Utah.
Christ, I couldn’t even walk that in shorts and a tank top in 14 games.
Naturally, Warren led his high school team to back-to-back Class 4A state championships, won a slew of awards, including 2016 Mr. Desert (because who wouldn’t want to be Mr. Desert) and was the cream of the crop in the Beehive State.
“Size and speed” was the reasoning Warren gave for not being highly recruited out of high school (go figure that one out), but still Warren ended up at Snow College (JUCO), where he casually won 2018 NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year, then finally gained some gravitas from the D1 ranks, in which he would land at Utah State.
“It wasn’t the best of fits,” said Warren reflecting on his 15-game stint with the Aggies, which eventually yielded to the senior transferring to Stillwater, where, in 13 games for Oklahoma State, he led the team with 1,216 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns, including 116 total yards in the Cowboys’ 37-35 win over Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl this past January (relevant for your happy memories if you bet on them as one-point favorites).
“I felt like I proved myself,” said Warren about his college career. “There were some ups and downs, but I worked so hard to get here and to be here, playing for a spot on a roster for an NFL team. I put everything I had into this.”
The NFL scouts did not see eye-to-eye with Jaylen come draft day, when 23 running backs – out of 262 total players – went drafted in the 2022 NFL Draft, and not one of them were named Jaylen Warren.
“You just have to find another way to get yourself in there and prove yourself,” Warren said about the agony of going undrafted.
On May 1, just after the draft concluded, the Steelers snagged Warren, and nine others, as a UDFA. The 2021 Big 12 newcomer of the year and Polynesian player of the year found a home.
“I was so excited about it,” said Warren, “but I mean, that’s my foot in the door, you know? Now I have to work my way up and see where my progress goes. It’s a good feeling but it I know there’s so much work to do.”
Alright, now you know how this underrated running back cake was prepared. Let’s see how it’s baking.
“I mean, you can see it, he’s improving every day, especially since he got here,” said Harris about Warren. “Him being undrafted, coming in here, showing what he could do, especially in good-on-good with the (first team), and with pads too. You question if a lot of things will translate with pads and it has (for him). To see Jaylen come in here and tun a lot of heads, I think that’s good for the running back room, just to put another guy in there that can compete with everybody.”
Warren has been receiving a healthy balance of reps with each team throughout training camp, especially since Harris has yet to practice due to an injury.
“I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to get the reps and get more of them,” said Warren “It’s a blessing to come out here because, when I first started, I was getting six or seven reps, and I knew I had to work my way up coming in as an undrafted rookie. You know, that first day I got to run with the (first team), I was just like, wow, I’m about to run a play with the Steelers offense. This is insane. But then as I got more repetitions, I started to get more comfortable with it, more confident.”
Warren’s growth and maturity has been noticeable. A running back with a bevy of angles to his game, including pass blocking, where it was on full display in seven shots at Latrobe Stadium early last week, when Warren met Delontae Scott at the line of scrimmage with a thunderous pop, picking up the blitz, which led to a passing touchdown.
I loved what he did there,” Scott said about the block. “That whole play we were expecting them to cut up or something and he came up and hit me head on. I’m like, yeah man, that’s what we need! I loved everything about it. He wasn’t scared to go against a dude that’s bigger than him.”
“I even shock myself sometimes,” Warren said about his toughness. “Like, I’ll go in the hole, and obviously I’m going to keep my feet moving, but then it goes black, and then I look and I’m like, oh shit, I’m still up, I got to keep running, or blocking, or whatever I need to do to make that play work.”
Warren’s multi-faceted range came on full display in his preseason debut that included 34 yards on six carries and 4 catches for 30 yards and a touchdown, a 3-yard leaping snag and backward dive to the endzone off a Kenny Pickett pass.
“Every pass I caught, it felt like a slow pass, you know, slow motion,” said Warren. “You got to catch those. I mean, I’m in a big game and they’re coming to me. Obviously, being in a running back, you have to be able to catch, but I didn’t think it was going to have its fair share (of passes) like that.”
Warren even made a tackle on a kickoff in the second half in a special teams role, somewhere that might help the rookie land a spot on the roster.
“That was huge, said Warren about the tackle. “I was telling the guys, watch me, watch me, I’m going to get a tackle. It was like, four kickoffs and I still didn’t get a tackle, but I when I finally got one, I was like, did y’all see that?!”
While receiving plenty of praise from coaches and players alike, Mike Tomlin did not take kindly to Warren’s one hiccup: a fumble midway through the second quarter, which was recovered by Miles Boykin.
“I didn’t like Jaylen putting the ball on the ground,” said Tomlin. “I appreciate his tackle breaking and contact balance, but that standard of expectation is non-negotiable. He’s got to get better there.”
“I mean, there’s still work to do and mistakes that need fixed,” Warren admitted. “I’m just trying to get better and better every day here. It’s not complete yet; I still have work to do, I know.”
Assuming the Steelers keep six wide receivers, Derek Watt, Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell, it will be an arduous road, and the toughest of tasks ahead, for Jaylen Warren to land on the final roster, but there is a ton of belief and relentless push for this underdog.
“I mean, that’s it. I’m an underdog. I’ve always been an underdog,” said Warren. “Those who believe in me, I thank them, and those who don’t, I thank them to. Whatever happens, happens. I’ve never been one to try and do the most, I just try to do my job the best that I can.”
“I believe in myself,” he concluded. “That’s the most important thing.
Whether we get to see the icing on this cake or not, what Jaylen Warren has baking in the oven with the Steelers is something hot and special.