- Josh Weinfuss, ESPN Arizona Cardinals reporter
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But their connection goes deeper than just looks.
Mitchell, 5-foot-9, went to The Citadel and Bauman, 5-10, to Northern Arizona. Both are Football Championship Subdivision schools, the second tier of Division I. Even though Mitchell was drafted in the ninth round by the Cardinals in 1981 and Bauman was signed as an undrafted free agent in May, they both needed to impress in two specific areas to make their respective rosters: pass protection and special teams. Both came into their first training camp as an underdog to make the team.
But at 55, Mitchell can look back on a nine-year career that ended as the Cardinals’ franchise leader in all-purpose yards, and second in rushing yards, punt return yards and kick return yards. At 22, Bauman is a day or two away from finding out if he’ll be allowed to start such a run.
His final chance to impress upon the Cardinals that he’s worthy of being kept on either the 53-man roster or practice squad comes Thursday night at San Diego. Final cuts will take place either Friday or Saturday.
For the past few months, ever since offseason workouts began, Bauman, a Chandler, Arizona, native, has paid close attention to the best example of how to make it as a small back from a small school.
“He understands how the process works and being a back, he’s a little thicker than I am, but same height, kinda similar stature,” Bauman said of Mitchell. “He’s helped me out with that a little bit.”
With Bauman coming from a small school, Mitchell’s primary concern was how Bauman would adjust to pass protecting in the NFL, something he didn’t do much of in college. Bauman set school records in rushing yards, all-purpose yards and touchdowns. Blocking wasn’t a priority.
But it’s how he’ll earn his keep in the NFL.
Bauman has all the skills necessary to be a productive running back, Mitchell said, such as great vision and the ability to make defenders miss. His size, however, is another issue.
“He’s short but he’s strong,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “There’s a lot of backs that are a little bit shorter than him that are strong. I don’t judge them by height. It’s the strength of which they strike a blow to take on a linebacker.”
Arians has been judging Bauman’s decisions to bounce outside the tackles instead of running in between them, however. He wants Bauman to stay inside since at this level, Bauman’s not the fastest player on the field anymore.
Bauman said he’s been bouncing outside more so because of his reads on the defense than out of habit.
“Watching the tape of the first game, I saw that I was bouncing out a lot and it was funny to me because that’s not who I am,” he said. “I like to run between the tackles. I think over the weeks, I’ve been able to get more comfortable with the offense and understand the blocking and not just let my mind go so fast and not just feel where the hole is. I think I’ll have a much better showing this game.”
For Bauman to hang around the NFL, he needs to do one more thing in addition to pass protecting and playing special teams: stay mentally strong. Bauman joined a locker room full of players from college football’s bluebloods. In the running back room alone he’s sitting alongside someone from Clemson (Andre Ellington), Georgia Tech (Jonathan Dwyer), Stanford (Stepfan Taylor) and Notre Dame (Robert Hughes). Bauman needs to think he’s more than capable of competing with those players if he wants to make it. The second a running back doubts himself will be the second he doesn’t have a chance, Mitchell said.
Those four are likely to be Arizona’s running backs this season, leaving Bauman on the outside. If he gets cut and makes it through waivers, he can end up on Arizona’s practice squad. If not, he’s put together a tape that shows off his pass protection.
“He’s shown a good job of pass blocking, so he’s got a few of those on tape,” Arians said. “He’s not afraid to stick his face in the fan. Just continue to do what he does.”
Standing next to each other, it’s easy to see how Arizona Cardinals running back coach Stump Mitchell and rookie Zach Bauman are similarly built.