The preseason is a tough existence for a rookie, especially an undrafted one. Fans aren't as familiar with who you are and what you've done to earn the spot you're in. You're probably lower on the depth chart and that means you're on the back end of the roster, trying to play your way onto the team in the limited reps you get.
Two players on the Falcons' roster this year that are fighting that uphill battle are running backs Donald Russell and Ronnie Wingo. With the addition of veteran Steven Jackson this offseason, the chance to start is slim and with Jacquizz Rodgers backing up Jackson, the numbers game becomes difficult for Russell and Wingo.
Last season the Falcons carried four running backs, with Jason Snelling and Antone Smith rounding out the four backs on the roster. This season's plan appears to be similar, but Russell and Wingo are making those decisions a little more difficult with how they've played on the practice field and in the preseason opener last week.
Russell and Wingo saw five and six snaps on offense last week and they made the most of them. Wingo led the team with 29 yards on four carries and Russell was the recipient of one pass for six yards. It wasn't a lot of action, but both young backs feel like they got the experience needed to continue their climb in the second week of preseason games.
"With any opportunity I get, it's more than enough for me," Russell said. "I'm just trying to build trust for the coaches. I definitely had an amazing experience, not just playing, but also walking through the tunnel with these guys. I'm enjoying it and I'm trying to keep building on more playing time so the coaches will have faith in me."
Running backs coach Gerald Brown thought both of them took advantage of their opportunities. He saw backs that took what they'd been doing on the practice field and learning in the meeting rooms to the field and made some positive plays.
"I think both of them got around five or six snaps each," Brown said. "When Wingo was in there, he had some nice runs. He had about three or four nice runs, so he looked good there. Russell came in there late and he caught a screen pass. It was good to see them get out there and make some plays for us. They're young but they're coming along. "
Wingo's four runs gave him an average of 7.3 yards per carry and he continues to show he's the kind of player that uses deceptive speed to gain yards in the open field. On a few occasions during training camp, Wingo found a hole and burst through it, turning on the burners and surprising some with the speed to get away.
That speed is a big part of his game and though many don't realize he's a former Southeastern Conference running back, his speed and size (6-foot-3) make him look like a Jackson clone, minus the long hair.
"My whole life I've been fast, but it's different now because not too many people have heard of me or seen me play before," Wingo said. "I feel like that's my best attribute as a player, my speed and size."
On Tuesday Falcons head coach Mike Smith said many of the players that didn't see a lot of snaps until late in the first week would see more this week. With Jason Snelling out against Baltimore there's a good chance Wingo and Russell will be among those players getting a longer look. Veteran Antone Smith will be ready for the Ravens, but has been out of practices the last week and a half, giving both backs more time.
Russell and Wingo have had some snaps in practices lately with starters and while that's a great experience, both know they can make a mark and earn a spot if they show up on special teams. Wingo didn't get any special teams reps last week and Russell only saw one, so that figures to change this week.
"I feel like I can really make a splash and put a stamp on everything if I can make some plays on special teams," Wingo said. "If you don't start, there are only 53 guys, so you'll have to play special teams. I feel like if I can make some noise on special teams it'll really help me out."
Both look for leadership from Jackson, a player with a long career and recognized as a player that's performed at a high level while doing it the right way. He's taken on a leadership role in the running backs room and both young backs have gained from it the example he's set.
"He's definitely a guy you can study," Russell said. "He's been in the league a long time. He's been successful as a running back and he looks great. He's a big dude and it looks like he can go another five or 10 years. I'm always asking questions and he's always there to answer them. He's definitely been a mentor to me."