With 1,221 yards through the first 10 games, J.J. Taylor is on pace to have the best season rushing performance for the Arizona Wildcats since Ka’Deem Carey ran for a school-record 1,885 yards in 2013.
And while the redshirt sophomore deserves as much credit as possible for this, he shouldn’t get all of it. A large helping of the praise needs to be given to other parts of Arizona’s offense, particularly the offensive line and the wide receivers.
Here’s how those two groups are contributing to Arizona’s run game, which leads the Pac-12 in yards per game (206.4) and yards per carry (5.02):
Except in rare cases, a running back without a capable line blocking for him won’t be able to do much.
Yet in Arizona’s case, the play of those two guards, two tackles and a center has been much better than expected considering the group entered 2018 without much collective experience beyond senior left tackle Layth Friekh. The other six linemen who have started this season had a combined seven starts to their name, all by redshirt junior Cody Creason.
Creason, redshirt sophomore Josh McCauley and true freshman Donovan Laie have started every game but McCauley is the only one to play the same position (center) each time. Three different Wildcats have started at left guard, with two each starting at left and right tackle and right guard.
That’s a lot of mixing and matching, which could lead to a lot of communication issues. Instead, what it’s done is develop some much-needed depth and versatility.
A beneficiary of the line shuffling has been redshirt sophomore Michael Eletise. One of the highest-rated recruits in Arizona history, Eletise saw only a handful of snaps on offense last season and wasn’t able to win a starting job in training camp in August.
But as the season has progressed, so has Eletise, to the point he’s started once at each guard spot and figures to be the starter at right guard as long as redshirt sophomore Bryson Cain is out due to injury.
“Mike’s been doing a good job going to any position on the line,” Friekh said. “Him getting that full game experience (against UCLA) really helped.”
Catching passes is only part of what Arizona’s wide receivers are asked to do. And as good as they’ve been when the ball is thrown their way, how they use their hands on run plays has been just as impressive.
Without those receivers blocking, many of the long runs by Taylor and sophomore Gary Brightwell this season might not have been nearly as long.
“It’s half of our job,” said senior Shawn Poindexter, who leads the Wildcats with eight touchdown catches but may be an even better run-blocker than pass-catcher. “Being a receiver you’ve got to be able to block. If I want the ball I’ve got to be able to block.”
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin has frequently credited his receivers with their contribution to the run game.
“Our guys on the perimeter ... have been really good,” Sumlin said. “The explosive runs of 25, 30 yards or more comes off the perimeter.”
Senior Shun Brown said it’s often the receivers’ job to “put them in the end zone” on run plays. “Nine times out of 10 our (defenders) are the last line of defense.”