By: Will Burchfield
@burchie_kid

Ameer Abdullah stopped the reporter in the middle of his question to pose one of his own.

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“You maxed out at 17 carries in a game last year,” Abdullah had been told, “what do you think you have to do–”

“Wait what game was that?” Abdullah asked, in a hopeful tone.

Told the number may have been 17 touches and not outright carries, Abdullah came to grips with reality.

“Touches, ohhh, that’s it. That might’ve been adding kickoff returns, too,” he said with a smile.

Indeed, the most carries Abdullah had in a game last year was 14. That felt like a disappointment for a rookie who arrived with high expectations, but Abdullah wasn’t the only Lions’ running back who struggled to get off the ground. The team ended up dead last in rushing, largely because players like Joique Bell and Theo Riddick were were-to-wire no-shows.

Abdullah, in fact, led the Lions in rushing in his rookie campaign, buoyed by a strong closing effort. He racked up 357 yards in the final seven weeks of the season, averaging a robust 4.76 yards per carry. And a healthy portion of that production came in the wake of a shoulder injury, one that’s held Abdullah out of Detroit’s offseason workouts as he works his way back to full health.

But Abdullah refused to suggest the injury was any kind of impediment.

“Once the season starts there’s never a game you’re not in pain playing football. You can play through some things, it’s fine,” he said.

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That’s certainly an attitude that will gain him favor with his coach. Though they may have softened in recent years – out of necessity as much as nature – football coaches always expect their players to suit up on Sundays. And Caldwell, while not as crusty as some of his more tenured counterparts, shares the belief that injuries are hurdles, not roadblocks.

“One of the things about our game is that you can also play with some issues sometimes, and Ameer was able to do that up to a certain point there towards the end,” Caldwell said. “I think he’s come back, gained his strength a little bit back. He’s moving well. He’s made a lot of strides just physically, more mature guy in there. I think he’s doing well right now.”

In Abdullah’s mind, however, his biggest offseason gains were in the mental aspect of the game. His time away from the field has increased his awareness on it.

“Just more cerebral,” he said of his growth as a player. “Understanding schemes better, have more experience, a lot more confident. I got to look at things this offseason from a coaching perspective so I understand why we do things more and where people are going to be. It’s been a very mentally challenging period for me.”

That has to be encouraging for Lions’ fans. Abdullah certainly doesn’t want for ability, as evidenced by his propensity for explosive kickoff returns. But he had a hard time optimizing that talent within the offense last year, where it takes more than speed and elusiveness to see consistent playing time. (A poor offensive line didn’t help, either.)

With a better understanding of the playbook entering the 2016 season, that figures to change. There is a logjam of running backs on the Lions roster right now, both healthy and not, but Abdullah carries the most promise moving forward. If he can bring his grasp of the offense up to snuff with his talent, he’ll likely see his role expand in the team’s offense – which, for now, Caldwell has yet to nail down within a specific domain.

“He led our team in all-purpose yardage. He’s probably going to be somewhere close to that again this year, I would hope and think, but he’ll be just as involved as he was a year ago,” Caldwell said.

The first step for Abdullah, of course, is to return to practice. That figures to happen when the Lions begin training camp in July. Then the sophomore running back can begin to display his maturation in earnest.

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His feet might not look any faster, but his mind will be whirring along with them.