A couple years ago, the Arizona Cardinals talked about getting the ball into Andre Ellington’s hands 25-to-30 times a game because he proved as a rookie in 2013 just how dynamic a player he was.
Injuries soon robbed him of his explosiveness and ability to be on the field, though, and in the coming years additions to the roster took his role as the lead back.
Entering the 2016 season, the 27-year-old is third on the running back depth chart behind David Johnson and Chris Johnson, and though he is finally healthy again, will likely need injuries ahead of him to carve out any significant role within the offense.
With that in mind, and with the idea of once again getting the ball in his hands as much as possible, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has decided to make Ellington the team’s primary kick and punt returner.
Ellington has some experience returning kicks, as he averaged 24.7 yards on 26 returns with one score in college, and as a rookie in 2013 gained 21 yards on a return.
As for punts, however…there isn’t much to go off of.
According to sports-reference.com, Ellington returned one punt for three yards in 2009.
That’s the extent of his experience in that role, yet this training camp and preseason has seen him take over there, too.
Ellington returned one punt for eight yards against San Diego and gained three yards on his lone effort against Houston.
“It’s cool, man, I’m getting used to it,” Ellington said of his new job. “I’m actually liking it. I’m just ready to get loose, open space.”
When talking about the special teams’ issues, Arians pointed to the blocking as why Ellington has struggled to get much out of his returns. Multiple times this offseason the coach has talked about how the player has a chance to score a touchdown every time he touches the ball, so there’s an understandable excitement — and perhaps disappointment — in the inability to give him any kind of room to run.
Just as it is for a running back, a player can only do so much without at least adequate blocking. This time of year special teams can be a work in progress, since many of the players who are filling the role will ultimately not make the final roster.
Besides that, though, there is also the fact that Ellington is still learning all the nuance that comes with returning punts.
“Punts, you have to be able to judge how the ball is kicked off their foot and you have to kind of be aware of the gunner play, guys are coming down there 100 miles per hour, you have to be aware of that,” he said. “And just feeling the catch and making sure you feel the catch before trying to run.”
Ellington admitted it’s tough to get down, but he likes it because once the ball is in his hands there is a chance to make something happen. He smiled at the notion that the coaches want to get the ball in his hands however they can, noting, “it’s a nice feeling” to have that kind of support.
Arians said he believes Ellington is getting used to the new role, adding the plan right now is for him to be the team’s punt returner Week 1 when the Cardinals host the New England Patriots.
“I’m excited about it, man,” Ellington said. “I’ve been working at it — I’m starting to get a little comfortable back there, but I’m still a while away from where I want to be. But it’s still early, so we’ll see.”