TEMPE, Ariz. — Cardinals coach Bruce Arians has done an about-face on running back Andre Ellington. At the end of last season, Arians warned of overuse of his breakout star, remembering the wear and tear that too many touches put on another small back — Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker — coached by Arians.
But when asked about Ellington on Tuesday, Arians not only declared him the No. 1 back, he talked of increasing his touches.
"I would love to get him 25 to 30 every game, depending on how many passes we can get to him," Arians said. "It’s easy to hand it to him, but throwing it to him is where he’s really dynamic. As the season progresses, it will depend on how (defenses) treat him as a receiver or a running back."
With Rashard Mendenhall gone, there had been some thought that Ellington and Stepfan Taylor might split time in the backfield, with Taylor taking over in power-running situations when the team needs tough yards. That role likely will still fall to Taylor and perhaps Jonathan Dwyer, but Arians said he also expects to use more two-back sets this season.
"We’ll tailor things for whoever the runner is," Arians said. "Each guy likes to run certain plays, and a lot of it depends on who the five guys up front are."
Ellington said he has been preparing for more touches.
"It gives me a lot more responsibilities. That’s why I’m in my playbook constantly, trying to learn and trying to pick up on things I did wrong last year," he said. "I’m in Year Two. Rookie year was rookie year, and it won’t mean anything if I don’t go out there and get better than what I was."
Ellington has always maintained that he can be a durable featured back, just like he was at Clemson.
"My goal is just to go out there and not take those big hits and get down when I’m supposed to," he said. "It’s football. You’re going to get tackled, but I try my best to avoid those."
The Cardinals did not use their practice bubble on Tuesday despite temperatures that climbed well into the 90s by the time practice had finished — temperatures that had team president Michael Bidwill joking that he had reached his heat threshold.
"Too many guys," Arians said of his bubble avoidance. "You can’t get in there with 90 guys. You’d get people hurt running into each another. That’s more for September or October when we’re down to (53).
"Right now, we need the heat to get in shape. We got way too many young guys, especially getting tissue injuries an hour and a half into practice. That just tells you they’re not in shape. It’s good for them mentally to fight the heat."
The Cardinals moved the start time for their practice up an hour on Tuesday, and Arians said once temperatures hit the 100s, they will go even earlier, starting around 7 a.m.
The Cardinals are counting on cornerback Justin Bethel to take on a significant defensive role this season in addition to his superb work on special teams. So far, he appears to be on track.
"He’s starting to get his hands on balls and is playing a lot more confidently," Arians said. "I think having gone to the Pro Bowl (for special teams) added some swagger to him, which he needed desperately."
— Of the rookie running backs in camp, Arians noted that Northern Arizona and Chandler Hamilton High prospect Zach Bauman has "done a really nice job," while UNLV’s Tim Cornett must "pick his (game) up a little bit."
Arians dismissed the notion that rookies from small schools have a harder time adapting to NFL camps than other rookies.
"The hardest thing for all the young guys is learning the language so that their brains don’t kill their feet," Arians said. "They can’t run because they don’t know where they’re going because they’re trying to decipher information. Once you learn information, then it’s just your football skills.
Arians doesn’t believe the speed of the game is more daunting for small-school players.
"Normally, they’re such gifted athletes to get here that it really isn’t other than the competition. … the small school guys I’ve dealt with have all come in with a chip on their shoulder and you have to throw ’em out."
— First-round pick Deone Bucannon is suffering from turf toe and skipped Tuesday’s workout. Arians said it is nothing serious.
— The Cardinals continue to split first-teams reps between right tackles Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell and right guards Earl Watford and Paul Fanaika.
— Former Arizona State wide receiver Kevin Ozier was one of four players signed by the Cardinals on Tuesday following tryouts at last week’s rookie mini-camp.
Ozier played in 40 games after walking on at ASU and started in 16. He had 55 catches and scored seven touchdowns.
Also signed were tackle Cory Brandon, who was with the Bears practice squad in 2012; cornerback Jimmy Legree out of South Carolina and running back Jalen Parmele, a four-year NFL veteran with Baltimore and Jacksonville.
The team waived running back Tim Cornett, cornerback Lequan Lewis, wide receiver Corey Washington and tackle Kadeem Williams.