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John DeShazier: Alvin Kamara comes into Saints training camp with high expectations

Can rookie from Tennessee follow in the path of Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles?

Reggie Bush.

Darren Sproles.

Alvin Kamara?

The less-than-certain punctuation is because we don't yet know about Kamara, the New Orleans Saints' third-round draft pick (No. 67 overall) this year.

It's because it's too early to say whether the former Tennessee standout is worthy of placement on the list of multi-purpose backs to have flourished in New Orleans since Coach Sean Payton was hired in 2006.

It's because while Bush and Sproles earned their cheers, respect and positions in the satellite-back hierarchy through highlight-reel plays and grunt-work willingness, Kamara hasn't yet faced his NFL indoctrination.

But the baptism truly begins now, in training camp, which starts Thursday with an 8:50 a.m. practice.

And Kamara will enter this phase of his development already favorably having been compared to Bush and Sproles by no less of an authority than Payton, who selected Bush with the No. 2 overall pick in 2006, helped recruit Sproles as a free agent in 2011, and watched each produce record-setting seasons in the roles that the Saints designed.

Check out photos of our third round pick, Alvin Kamara at Saints Rookie Minicamp

For Bush, that meant a team-leading 88 receptions in 2006, a rookie record for NFL running backs, en route to 294 catches (for 2,142 yards and 12 touchdowns), 524 carries (for 2,090 yards and 17 touchdowns), and 92 punt returns (for 720 yards and four touchdowns) in five seasons as a Saint.

For Sproles, it equated to an NFL-record 2,696 all-purpose yards – 603 rushing, 710 receiving, 294 on punt returns and 1,089 on kickoff returns – in 2011, his first year as a Saint. Sproles had 10 touchdowns that season, and in three seasons as a Saint, he ran 188 times for 1,067 yards and five touchdowns, caught 232 passes for 1,981 yards and 16 scores, returned 70 kickoffs for 1,827 yards and returned 81 punts for 671 yards and a touchdown.

For Kamara, it means the expectations that come attached with being the "next" one.

"I kind of tried to tune it out," Kamara said of the comparisons. "I've got to come in and … learning a new system, I tried to block that out and take what's on my plate and learn and do what I've got to do."

Kamara's plate is full and by all accounts, he's eating and digesting.

It's no surprise to see him streaking down the sideline, on a wheel route, pulling away from an overmatched linebacker while hauling in a deep pass, appearing to be as much of a receiver as the actual receivers. Or to see him catch a pass a few yards beyond the line of scrimmage, feint inside, spin outside and pretzel a defender who may or may not have been unsuspecting, but likely hadn't been subjected to many dip-in, spin-out-the-back-door moves like that at any time, on any level.

"I've been really excited to work with him," said quarterback Drew Brees, who counts Kamara among his post-practice route runners, as they seek to develop more cohesion. "I think he's an extremely intelligent kid who is very conscientious as well. This is a lot to handle during this time. It's a lot of information being thrown at you and then you have to go out and you have to apply it. Not only do you have to apply it, but you have to apply it against bigger, stronger, faster guys at an entirely different level.

"I feel like he's fit in really, really well. It hasn't felt too big for him. We've thrown a lot on his plate and it can be complex at times. All you have to do is tell him something once and he's got it, or show it to him one time and he's got it. So he's a very quick learner and I think the more that we're able to work together, the better that chemistry is going to become."

Running backs coach Joel Thomas said that Kamara has been exactly what he was advertised to be coming out of Tennessee. In two seasons with the Vols, Kamara had 210 carries for 1,294 yards and 16 touchdowns, 74 catches for 683 yards and seven touchdowns, and 26 punt returns for 284 yards and a score.

"I think what we've seen, or I've seen, are all the things of why we drafted him," Thomas said. "He's a smart player, he shows it on the field. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice. He has great short-area quickness but he has this elusiveness that you want out on the edge and out on the perimeter.

"He's gotten better running the ball just from a traditional seven yards deep in the backfield. He's got a green arrow up, he's worked hard. Obviously, we're in football underwear right now so we'll see when the pads get on if that continues to be an upward trend.

"(As a receiver), not a lot of fight with the ball. There's been a drop here and there but nothing that you're like, 'Ah, maybe we have the wrong guy out there.' He's shown, on a daily point, that he can get it done and do some of the things we're asking him to do out on the perimeter."

Kamara won't lack opportunity to continue to show what he can do.

He won't be New Orleans' primary ball-carrier, not with Mark Ingram and Zach Line ahead of him on the depth chart. Ingram is coming off his first 1,000-yard season – the first by a Saints back since '06, when Deuce McAllister did it – and Peterson is the NFL's second-leading active rusher with 11,747 yards, good for 16th place on the all-time list.

Ingram's pass-catching skills possibly are underrated (96 catches for 724 yards and four touchdowns over the last two seasons combined), and Peterson has had four seasons with at least 30 catches.

But neither provides the "oomph" that Kamara is expected to render as a change-of-pace, receiving threat who also can help in the return game.

"The strengths of some of these backs, they're different," Payton said. "Our job is to try to give them the things that they do well. He's certainly comfortable in a pass-catching mode and a route runner. I think he's done a good job with the run scheme, the protection. He's a pretty quick study, he's picked things up pretty quickly. There's a rhythm to his game, it's pretty fluid. He has done a good job."

But it's not as if Kamara won't be a threat in the running game, too. Tennessee ran more sweeps out of the shotgun and was a perimeter-oriented offense.

"(But) he's done a nice things just in regards to sticking his face in the briar patch, so to speak, of just getting in the middle of the defense and not really being timid or anything," Thomas said. "But we'll see in pads. I'll reserve judgement until then."

Kamara understands, and feels much the same.

"You always know that when those pads come on, it's different," he said. "When the pads come on, everybody knows it's different."

The game will be different in training camp. And the Saints are counting on Kamara to be a difference-maker.

"I'm just coming out every day and trying to find something to get better at," he said. "I feel like I'm doing pretty good, trying to lock into the schemes and just pay attention to what's asked of me.

"I'll keep continuing to work. Those little nuances of the game, of the offense, I'll try to get with Drew and learn as much as I can just to give myself an advantage and be ahead."

Reggie Bush.

Darren Sproles.

Alvin Kamara?

Only one man can change the punctuation, and the Saints believe he's the perfect man for the task.

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