Abdullah will be ready if Lions give him Nebraska-like load

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Ameer Abdullah: “I need to be in better shape because the NFL is a more physical and faster game."

Lions running back Ameer Abdullah's goal for his rookie season is simple. He just wants to contribute, whether on offense, special teams, or both.

That's a far cry from the player at Nebraska that had at least 250 touches each of the last three seasons, and Abdullah said it is tough not having a defined role after being used so frequently in college.

If Abdullah learns the playbook and shows consistent effort, attitude and physicality, he said he expects to play this year. But he'll be spending much of the next month in the gym to prepare for training camp.

"I need to be in better shape because the NFL is a more physical and faster game, and it's not so much people having talent deficiencies out there," he said Friday at the NFL's rookie symposium. "It's about who gets tired quicker. So if I can go longer than a lot of other teams, that's how I'm going to make my mark and that's how I'm going to be effective. And that's true across the board for any player."

For Abdullah, earning as many touches as he did at Nebraska will be tough, but certainly not impossible. He joins a Lions backfield with Joique Bell and Theo Riddick; they surely will have a role on offense. But after ranking 28th in rushing last year, the Lions are in no position to guarantee work to their veteran runners.

Last year, Jeremy Hill had 222 carries and 27 receptions as a rookie despite Giovani Bernard opening the season as the Bengals' top back. Hill was a second-round pick last year, 55th overall. Abdullah was the 54th pick this year.

The year before in Cincinnati, Bernard had 170 carries and 56 receptions as a rookie second-round pick, 37th overall, and took over the top job from BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

Tre Mason, a third-round pick in 2014, had 195 touches, despite Zac Stacy opening the season as the Rams' top running back. Andre Williams, a fourth-rounder last year, finished with 235 touches after Giants back Rashad Jennings suffered an early-season injury. And back in 2012, Washington's Alfred Morris had an absurd 335 carries, plus 11 receptions, as a sixth-round rookie.

So, as humble as Abdullah wants to be about his goals for 2015, there are plenty of rookies that find themselves playing nearly as much as they did in college.

Ameer Abdullah had at least 250 touches each of the last three seasons at Nebraska.

Something that should help Abdullah stay on the field is his receiving ability, which coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi praised during the Lions' offseason practices. In college, Abdullah averaged 24 receptions the last three seasons and said he wasn't a bigger factor in the passing game because of Nebraska's zone-read-heavy scheme. On many pass plays, Abdullah would be involved in play action and the ball would go to receivers.

Plus, in addition to having between 226 and 281 carries the last three seasons, Abdullah was involved in the return game, returning punts as a freshman and sophomore, and kickoffs all four years — though he had just four as a junior.

"I couldn't do everything," Abdullah said.

But one thing Abdullah has already realized he can do to become a better pass catcher is watch Lions wide receiver Golden Tate. A running back in high school, Tate led all receivers in yards after the catch in 2014.

"He makes a lot of moves but all of his moves are going up field, and that's something I'm trying to add more into my game," Abdullah said.

And like Tate, Abdullah has a simple thought process after he catches the ball.

"Get up field and score," he said.

Abdullah's role could hinge on Bell's health as he missed the offseason program recovering from minor knee and Achilles tendon surgeries. Abdullah should have a leg up on Riddick because Riddick has yet to prove he can run between the tackles. And even though his 29 carries the last two years are a small sample size, the coaches made it clear they prefer his receiving skills to his ball-carrying.

Abdullah also became the favorite to be the top returner when the Lions drafted him, so even if veterans Bell and Riddick remain atop the running back depth chart, Abdullah should be the contributor he hopes to be.

The issue, of course, is that Abdullah will struggle to escape comparisons to Reggie Bush, whom the Lions cut in February. It doesn't help that Abdullah is wearing No. 21, which Bush used the last two seasons.

"It's a difficult thing to really handle," he said. "I feel like in my era of growing up, Reggie Bush was one of the greatest players. So to understand the expectations in Detroit, it's awesome, it's great. But at the same time, it's a happy medium of understanding there's only one Reggie Bush, and I'm trying to make it out to be there's only one Ameer Abdullah."

Abdullah nominated

Abdullah is nominated for the 2015 ESPY Awards as his tackle-breaking, game-winning touchdown against McNeese State last year is a No. 12 seed in the best play category. Abdullah is matched up against Stephen Curry's ankle-breaking behind-the-back dribble against Chris Paul (No. 5 seed).

"Steph Curry is obviously the hot name right now," Abdullah said, admitting he's not overly optimistic. "He just won the NBA Finals. I can't disagree. That play he had reminded me of some of my days back in high school basketball, but he actually made the shot. I wouldn't have made the shot."

Go here to vote for the ESPYs.