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Another contender for the wide-open spots behind Najee Harris in the Steelers’ backfield is an undrafted rookie free agent who once led his high school team to a big-school state championship by rushing for over 3,000 yards and scoring 38 touchdowns.
Yet, Derrell Jaylen Warren wasn’t offered a Division One college scholarship.
“I was slow back then,” said Warren.
That’s a bit surprising, considering Warren’s bloodlines. He’s a cousin of “Fast” Willie Parker, another undrafted free agent with the Steelers whose speed turned him into a Super Bowl legend.
But, Warren, eh, maybe not so much.
Born in Parker’s hometown of Clinton, N.C., Warren didn’t stick around to become one of the Dark Horses. His mother took him to Utah for her father’s funeral when he was 2, and they stayed. He attended Salt Lake City East High and in 2015 rushed for 1,984 yards to lead the Leopards to the Utah 4-A state championship. They repeated the following year when Warren became the first player in state history to rush for over 3,000 yards. He compiled 3,009 yards rushing and was voted Utah’s Mr. Football.
“I have some speed,” Warren said with a smile. “Maybe I don’t have Willie Parker speed. He was REALLY fast. But I do have some speed and some good instincts.”
Warren credits his gaudy rushing total in 2016 to an offensive line that “was amazing. Our left tackle went to Texas, our left guard went to Washington and our right guard went to Utah State. Yeah, a bunch of D-1 O-linemen.”
Still, Warren should’ve drawn a Division One offer.
“We ran the Wing-T so they thought I was a system guy,” he said. “BYU said I wouldn’t fit their system. Dixie State (now Utah Tech in Division One) offered but they were D-2 at the time. And then I had a D-3 and a junior college, Snow, so I just went to Snow.”
Snow College is the JUCO power at which former Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel played before attending BYU. In two seasons at Snow, Warren grew into a 1,435-yard rusher in 2018 and his 159.4 yards per game led the nation. He was named the 2018 NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year and 247Sports ranked him the fourth-best JC running back in the nation.
It led him to Utah State in 2019, when he became the first Aggie to rush for over 100 yards in his debut, and then the first to do so in back-to-back games to start his career. But injuries nagged him the rest of the season and Warren finished as the team’s second-leading rusher with 569 yards (5.1 ypc.). He came back in 2020 with 252 yards but opted out after three games and transferred to Oklahoma State.
From Clinton to Salt Lake City to Ephraim to Logan to Stillwater is a lot of moving in 21 years.
“It is,” Warren said. “I was used to being away from home so it didn’t affect me, being homesick. Snow was two hours south; Utah State was two hours north. I was used to being away from home, so when I moved states I had no problem. I knew I would only be at Oklahoma State for one year.”
Warren was more than accepted by his new OSU teammates. He was voted captain before the start of his only season there.
“I guess it was just the way I put my head down and worked,” he said. “I was never a ‘do-this, do-that’ kind of guy. I don’t really talk on the field. I just work. And they saw some things in me that maybe I didn’t really see in myself. Heck I just thought my work ethic was the norm. I guess I learned that stuff in high school: I never took my helmet off, I never took a knee. I guess they looked at that as leadership, so I was just voted it. It was a good feeling, and I was surprised. I had never been the captain of a team.”
He won another vote at the end of the season: Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year by the league’s head coaches. He rushed for 1,216 yards and was named honorable mention All-Big 12.
Warren was a major cog in OSU’s 12-1 regular season, but an ankle injury kept him out of the Big 12 Championship game, a 21-16 loss to Baylor.
Warren had two of the Big 12’s top six rushing games in 2021: the 218-yard performance at Boise State was second; the 193-yard game at Texas was sixth. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry and had a team-long run of 75 yards. He also caught 25 passes for 225 yards with a long reception of 52 yards against Kansas State. Warren won Big 12 player of the week honors a conference-high five times.
At the NFL Combine, Warren measured 5-8, 204 and ran the 40 in 4.55. NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein called Warren a “wrecking ball on wheels who plays with the type of pace and power that makes tape study a lot of fun.”
The quote made Warren laugh. “Wrecking ball on wheels? I’ve done that multiple times,” he said with another laugh. “I mean, that’s how you score touchdowns. Whatever helps the team.”
Zierlein questioned Warren’s burst and ability to get outside, negatives that were no doubt part of the reason Warren went undrafted.
Out of the teams which attempted to sign him after the draft, Warren chose the Steelers because they offered the most ($4,000 bonus) and are looking to add depth.
Two days after he signed, Parker called Warren to remind him he also went to the Steelers undrafted.
“He was telling me what to expect, what routines I should get into, like reading, all kind of things,” Warren said. “He was also telling me his mess-ups and giving me insight into what not to do. It was a great talk.”
Warren will enter training camp next week with as good of a chance to make the roster as any of the Steelers’ undrafted players.
“I’m enjoying it,” he said in the spring. “It’s still surreal that I’m in the league practicing with the Steelers. Being here is a little boy’s dream. I remember playing football, saying, ‘Just give me the ball and I’ll run.’ You know, just playing football. Now I’m in the business aspect of it and it’s crazy how fast things move and how fast I had to transition. But as far as how everything’s going, I’m enjoying it a lot, learning a lot.”
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