Ka’Deem Carey slips through a tackle by California’s Cedric Dozier in the fourth quarter Saturday. “I’ve never carried the ball this much,” Carey said.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

When his team was going through spring drills and fall practice, Rich Rodriguez didn’t want anyone touching Ka’Deem Carey.

Like a starting quarterback, Carey was off limits to defenders. His white practice jersey and pants looked straight out of the laundry when he walked off the practice field.

The coach wanted his running back to be at full strength for his junior season. There was a reason: Rodriguez knew his star running back would take plenty of licks.

The logic made sense then — and looks even smarter now.

Over the past four games, Carey has been tackled to the ground 108 times on rushes and 10 more times on pass receptions.

“I’ve never carried the ball this much,” Carey said Tuesday. “Today, for the first time all year, I went into the cold tub before practice. Usually, I go one time a week, and that’s on Thursday. But I went today and plan on going tomorrow and throughout the week.”

The running back’s highest single-game rush total last season was 29 carries. This season, he has carried the ball 30 or more times in three games. He had 39 totes in last month’s win over Utah.

And even though the running back has a sore right ankle and a few other bumps and bruises, his workload won’t decrease over the final four games of the season. The Wildcats (6-2, 3-2 Pac-12) will finish with games against UCLA, Washington State, Oregon and Arizona State.

“We’re going to do whatever it takes to win games, and a lot of times our best chance to win games is to hand No. 25 the ball,” Rodriguez said. “He’s probably a little bit bothered by his ankle. He didn’t miss any practice or anything like that. He’s such a tough guy, he’s not one to talk to the trainers or go to the training room. He’s just wired that way.

“There were times last week where he was hurting a little bit, but I think he’ll be better this week going forward.”

Still, Carey isn’t used to this type of workload.

In Pop Warner, Carey said it was “16 carries for 300 yards and then get out.” In high school, the running back was usually out of the game by halftime.

That’s certainly not the case anymore. Carey has amassed 1,072 yards on 188 carries in seven games this season; he was suspended for the season opener against Northern Arizona.

“If you get 40 carries a game, you’re gonna get tackled,” Carey said. “I’m not used to that. You get sick of it, but as the game goes on, that’s what the team needs. They need you to bear down and just go out there and get that extra yardage.”

Not only is Carey getting more rushes than he ever has, defenses are coming for him. Everyone wants a crack at the man who led the nation in rushing last season.

The running back said he has noticed players hit him harder and finish tackles more to try to put their stamp on him. They also chirp at Carey throughout.

“They’ll just say, ‘It’s gonna be a long game,’ ” Carey said. “And I’m not too much of a talker. I’ll get up and say ‘OK, that was one play.’ I just look forward to playing the rest of them. Usually, I win. Let’s put it that way.

“By the end of the game, they don’t say too much and they just laugh and shake my hand.”

The amount of carries may be new for Carey, but defenders gunning for him isn’t. He dealt with that during his senior year at CDO. And let’s just say he didn’t deal with it as well as he is now.

“I was the motor mouth then,” Carey said laughing. “I feel like it’s my senior year right now. The way they gunned at me my senior year is the way they’re gunning at me this year. My senior year, I remember me getting full of it, getting too ahead of myself, and I ended up getting hurt and not having the season I wanted.

“Not anymore.”

Adding to the pounding Carey is taking is that the running back does most of his damage up the middle. He’s not a bounce-it-outside, run out-of-bounds, avoid-contact type of back.

Over the past four games, including rushes that were called back because of penalties, Carey has 118 carries. Of those, 79 have gone up the middle.

“He’s as good as anybody I’ve ever had between the tackles,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of people can make people miss in space. Ka’Deem’s space to make people miss is really small, which is pretty remarkable.”

Contact reporter Daniel Berk at dberk@azstarnet.com or 573-4330. On Twitter @DSBerk.