Cardinals’ backs get ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

TEMPE, Ariz. – William Powell was out of work for three and a half months last season after the Cardinals cut him on Sept. 2. In that span, the dream of some day starring in the NFL never crossed his mind.
“With most little kids where I’m coming from, the dream is just to be in the NFL,” said Powell, who is from Duncanville, Texas. “I’ve always been a confident player, and I know I have the talent to play on this level, but I knew if I ever got back, I had to show the coaches that I belonged.”

Signed to the practice squad in December of 2011, Powell earned a 53-man roster spot in 2012 by leading the league with 249 rushing yards in the preseason. But with injuries sidelining Beanie Wells for at least the next five games, Ryan Williams for the rest of the season, and special-team duties and his size limiting the amount of carries LaRod Stephens-Howling can manage, Powell and Alfonso Smith will be thrust into major roles this Sunday (and in the ensuing four weeks) when the Cardinals host the Buffalo Bills at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“We’ve been hanging out together. We even went to the mall together,” Smith said with a wide smile. “We very well know that this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

Smith has a little more experience in this situation. With Williams also shelved in 2011 and Wells playing through a knee injury, Smith had 30 carries for 102 yards last season.

But he was cut at the start of the 2012 season and only re-signed after Wells went on injured reserve with severe turf toe. That experience and past carries have made him a little wiser.

“I’ve learned to just slow everything down,” Smith said. “It’s not going to always be perfect. It’s not going to always be a play where it’s a long run, so sometimes you’ve got to take two or three yards, four yards and that’s when a defense will loosen up.”

None of the Cardinals’ remaining running backs has factored much in the run game this season. Powell, Smith and Stephens-Howling have a combined 15 carries for 10 yards with Wells and Williams doing most of the work.

“It is a big blow to lose Ryan, especially somebody you can see gaining confidence,” quarterback Kevin Kolb said. “But again, we have confidence in the rest of the guys, and we get LaRod back.”

Stephens-Howling had been nursing a sore hip that sidelined him the past two weeks, but coach Ken Whisenhunt said he was moving around well at Wednesday’s practice and wasn’t limited.

How much of the load Stephens-Howling carries hasn’t been disclosed, although Whisenhunt acknowledged that his increased duties would “probably” impact his kick return duties.

Powell has shown an ability to return kicks and could factor in that area on Sunday, too. As Whisenhunt pointed out, he nearly returned the kickoff in overtime for a touchdown against Miami on Sept. 30. He also noted the quantum leap Powell made this preseason.

“He did everything well,” Whisenhunt said. “He did protection well. He ran the ball well. He did a nice job with his routes. He was really productive. When you look at guys that come from a long way to make the team, he did that.”

Both Powell and Smith admit it is difficult not to press in the face of this rare opportunity. Wells will be back soon, so the time for proving is now.

“You have to have some kind of self control,” Smith cautioned.

“You don’t want to get too caught up in that,” Powell added. “But at the same time, it is what you dream about, and you want to be able to dream even bigger.”

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