Running back Andre Ellington makes a move outside during a training camp practice.
When Andre Ellington was young and strapping on shoulder pads for the first time, he pictured himself as Barry Sanders.
Ellington would try and bob and weave as the Detroit Lions Hall of Famer. It was Sanders who made his team go.
"He was one of my idols," Ellington said. "I'd mimic my game in Pop Warner after him. Now I'm in his shoes."
Ellington will be the engine of the Cardinals' offense this season, the "bellcow" of the backfield, coach Bruce Arians said. What that will mean in practice is something different. Unlike the heady days of Sanders, few running backs get 22-to-25 carries a game anymore. Ellington certainly will not.
What will he do? The possibilities are intriguing.
Arians said Ellington could be a starting wide receiver on a team if that had been his chosen position. Ellington can
get the ball out of the backfield through handoff, toss or swing pass. He can work out of the slot and he can line up wide. His first crucial opportunity with the Cardinals, in fact, was on a wheel route against the Rams in the 2013 season-opener, a play that had it connected (it did not) would have won the game.
"It's fun creating things with a player like him," Arians said.
It also leaves questions, however. He may shoulder the offensive load, but in what ways keeps everyone guessing right now, and that includes the Cardinals.
"He's so explosive, he's so quick and then you want to put him in the pass game because he's so good in the pass game," quarterback Carson Palmer said. "It's so hard to predict, 'He'll have x amount of yards, x amount of catches' because he is so talented in both. Selfishly I want to
use him in the pass game but selfishly I want to use him in the run game too."
At 5-foot-9 and around 203 pounds, Ellington believes he's stronger than last year. His size isn't much different than his hero's. Sanders played at 5-8, 203, although Sanders' legs had much more bulk to them.
Ellington isn't about to compare himself to one of the best running backs in history. But he shrugs his shoulders at the idea he can't be the main running back. All last year, he was frustrated – although smartly never let it affect his mindset – not that he didn't get more carries but the idea that he wouldn't be able to handle such a workload.
He was that guy in college at Clemson after C.J. Spiller left, and believes he can do the same now.
"I am very confident," Ellington said. "Last year I wasn't aware of what my role would be on the team. Now I have got kind of an idea. I am approaching the year a lot differently."
If anything, it's Ellington's health that must cooperate. Arians said Ellington does a good job of getting "skinny" around defenders and absorbing less of a blow. Ellington said he's figured out he must have his body right to last, and Palmer emphasized he would stay on Ellington's case all season to "stay on top of his body."
"Like guys that need to carry the load need to do," Palmer added.
Ellington averaged 5.5 yards a carry last season, which was Sanders-esque. It's about getting him the ball in space, which is why having him as a receiver – he had 39 catches last year, most of which weren't just swing passes out of the running back slot – is such an important facet to his game.
In his career, Sanders averaged a little more than 22 touches a game. If Ellington were around 18 to 22, that's something that seems feasible, however he ends up with the ball.
"Whatever (Arians) throws in my face," Ellington said, "I'll be ready for the possibility."
Images from the eighth practice of training camp.