Running back Zach Bauman runs a sweep during rookie minicamp.
Tim Cornett and Zach Bauman spent the past four seasons excelling at the college level, but by now that's old news. Their viability to make the Cardinals will be measured in days and weeks, not months and years.
The two undrafted free agent running backs – out of UNLV and Northern Arizona, respectively – picked up valuable practice time over the past three days at rookie minicamp, getting individual attention from coaches that can be harder to find during organized team activities.
While Andre Ellington, Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer are penciled in as the top three running backs on the roster, the May 12 release of Ryan Williams opened up the competition for the fourth spot, and they're feverishly trying to make a positive impression. Even though Williams' release meant one less hurdle to clear, coach Bruce Arians said it's still an uphill
battle for the two rookies given the presence of veteran Robert Hughes.
Hughes signed with the Cards late last season.
"The fourth running back spot is normally a quality situational football player or a very, very good special teams player," Arians said. "Robert Hughes is a quality all-around football player. Fullback. Running back. Special teams player. It will be very hard for one of the young guys to unseat him right now, but it's possible."
In fact, neither can get too comfortable at all after the Cardinals brought in former UCLA running back Damian Thigpen and five-year NFL veteran Jalen Parmele for tryouts this weekend. While Cornett and Bauman were both priority free agents signed immediately after the draft, the leash is short at this time of year.
Arians said if he finds players he prefers in the tryout phase he won't hesitate to "swap them out. That's the cold part of the business. Every single day you're being evaluated."
Cornett led the Running Rebels in rushing all four seasons of his college career and believes his game can translate to the NFL, but has been frustrated with his handle on the playbook.
"That's been the hardest part – learning," Cornett said. "Football is football, whether it be high school, college or little
league, but it gets more complex as you go. It's a lot more complex than the type of offense we ran at UNLV. It's to a point where I'm messing up on small things because I'm thinking about another play I missed. It's just a big mess out there right now."
Despite the mental learning curve, Cornett feels confident in his ability to compete athletically. He said he hasn't felt a seismic shift in the speed of the game from the Mountain West Conference to the NFL.
"The speed difference is only because of me not knowing my assignments and not being able to play as fast as possible," Cornett said. "When we do running plays and I know what we're doing, it's full go. I'm moving. But when it comes to passing plays, I don't know my assignments. Once I know that, that'll slow down, too. People always say the NFL is so much faster – and it is faster, don't get me wrong – I think it's all in your mind. I'm a strong-minded guy and think I can compete with anybody."
Bauman finished his Lumberjacks career as the school's all-time leader in rushing yards with 5,132, but knows it will take more than pure running ability to earn a spot. Without standout measurables, the 5-foot-7, 200-pounder must contribute in a variety of ways to make the team.
"They haven't said 'This is exactly what we need you to do,' but I'm just out here trying to show my skills," Bauman said.
"Show them what I can do with the football in my hand, as a special teams guy, on offense running the ball and catching the ball, blocking. Just trying to show every asset I've got."
Bauman and Cornett were both disappointed when their names weren't called on draft day, but Arians' philosophy is to give everyone an equal chance once they show up. That could mean a quick boot if another player performs better, or it could mean a spot on the team with improvement in subsequent weeks.
"I know the work I put in throughout high school, throughout college, to be in the position to be drafted," Cornett said. "When it didn't happen, it was like, 'Well, OK.' At least I get this shot."