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Healthy and running hard, Bush happy to be big fish in Miami

DAVIE, Fla. -- Under the hot August sun, when all his teammates understandably retreated to the locker room after practice, Dolphins running back Reggie Bush's self-induced acclimation to South Florida would continue for at least 30 minutes.

He'd run 100-yard sprints on one of the team's two practice fields, harnessed into a device designed to drag sets of weights on the ground behind him. When that was done, he'd slam a blocking sled. Then he'd catch dozens of passes that would spit from a machine.

Bush never had to explain why he did it, everyday. You just knew: He had something to prove, something more to accomplish in a career defined by a strange acceptance in New Orleans that he was a nice weapon but not what so many initially hoped.

But what more exactly did he desire? Eclipsing 1,000 yards? Staying healthy in an expanded role? Serving as an every-down running back? These have long been our general assumptions -- all true, too -- but far from Bush's master plan.

"I feel like there's so much more," Bush told me earlier this week, two days after surpassing 1,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."

When I asked Bush if he's capable of winning an NFL rushing title, noting the task often requires well above 1,500 yards, he did not hesitate.

"Yes, I do," he said. "No disrespect to anyone, but I've spent a lot of time studying different players, including Chris Johnson. I've watched a ton of his runs, especially during his 2,000-yard season. And yeah, I feel like I'm capable of a lot, but I'm not worrying about that yet. My mental focus is entirely on this next game. If I wasn't, my priorities would be backward, and I wouldn't be setting myself up to accomplish any of this."

Just as it was fair to wonder, given his body of work with the Saints, whether Bush would accomplish as much as he has this season, his confidence moving forward is surely to be met with more skepticism. But after a generally quiet season -- likely because of Miami's lack of success -- Bush has created a decent argument.

Nobody with more than 200 attempts this year is averaging more yards per carry (5.0) than Bush. Only eight running backs have more carries than him. And his best work, which disputes concerns that he'd wear down too quickly, has occurred in three of his last four games, when he's carried 20-plus times.

"I knew it was just a matter of opportunity for me to get the chance to show that I can be an every-down back," Bush said.

In Miami, under former coach Tony Sparano, he most certainly got that opportunity. Since the day Bush arrived in South Florida, Sparano spoke with conviction about his belief in the running back's every-down potential, even in the face of criticism.

"I really have a strong belief that this guy can carry the ball on first and second down," he said on July 29, his first comments after the trade with New Orleans was completed.

This experiment is far from over, but it is off to an encouraging start, at least justifying to this point Bush's decision to leave New Orleans in favor of exploring a new role. Bush could have restructured his deal with the Saints (he was due more than $11 million in 2011) but was instead traded to Miami, where he signed a new deal. That decision wasn't an easy one, causing Bush to reach out to a select group of advisors. Former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan was among them.

"I think he was genuinely conflicted," Strahan said Tuesday. "I felt like he looked at it as a crossroad. It wasn't financial. That didn't seem like a concern. It was all about what he wanted to accomplish as a player -- and whether he had to go somewhere else to do that."

Strahan's advice? You got the Super Bowl ring early in your career -- now it's time to chase other goals, whether 1,000 yards or a Pro Bowl or any grand plans that would require a more extensive role than the one designed for him with the Saints. Bush took the wisdom. And he ran with it.

"I remember saying, 'If I don't chase this opportunity now, I'll never forgive myself for not trying,'" Bush said. "I had different goals. It wasn't easy to leave, but at the end of the day, I'd rather chase this vision than to never have tried."

Bush's late-season success could not have come at a better time. Had he not been able to quickly prove his worth as an every-down back in the first year of his two-year contract, there's no telling what Miami's next coach might have in mind for him.

This, after all, was the only place willing to take a shot on Bush as more than a speedy role player used mostly on third downs. He now has plenty of proof that might alter the opinions of many. It remains to be seen just how much success Bush can garner in the NFL -- whether he truly can mold himself into a rushing champion. But after a season in which he proved, through intense preseason training and a level of conviction about his own ability that few others saw, it seems safe to at least say he earned himself a shot.

"I've always known it was within me," Bush said. "I didn't feel like I had to prove it to anyone. That's the biggest factor in all of this: self-belief.

"Now, it's just about making it happen."

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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