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Depth, experience at running back should benefit Arizona

arizona-wildcats-football-spring-practice-running-backs-michael-wiley-dj-williams-luke-coleman-2023 Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona was a middle-of-the-pack rushing team in the Pac-12 last season, averaging 144 yards per game overall and 151.2 in league games. Those numbers were only slightly better than in 2021, unlike the pass attack which saw a 40 percent production uptick as the Wildcats became a much more explosive offense.

A dependable run game will be needed for the UA to continue to be dangerous with the ball in 2023, and it helps that it brings back all four ballcarriers from a year ago.

Michael Wiley is back for his fifth season in the program, one of five players remaining from the 2019 freshman class who opted to come back for one more year rather than explore a pro career. He’s joined by fellow fifth-year senior DJ Williams, who transferred in from Florida State last summer, as well as sophomores Jonah Coleman and Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke.

Add in true freshman Brandon Johnson, a 3-star signee from California, and the Wildcats will have no shortage of options to hand off (or throw) to.

“We’ve got, really, a pallet of different skill sets,” running backs coach Scottie Graham said.

Wiley ran for 771 yards and eight touchdowns last season, the most rushing yards for a UA back since 2018 and the most TD runs since 2017. Williams added 376 yards and three TDs, while Coleman ran for 372 yards and four scores and Luke had 15 carries for 105 in an injury-shortened first season.

Coleman and Williams have reshaped their bodies from a year ago, the product of a full offseason in Tyler Owens’ strength and conditioning program. Both have added muscle but managed to get faster, Graham said.

“We’ve got the best strength and conditioning team in the country,” he said. “We don’t look the same like we did two years ago. Guys have arms now. Their backs are bigger.”

Wiley’s 1,401 career rushing yards rank 27th in school history, but he’s 24th in yards for scrimmage thanks to 844 yards and seven TDs on 95 catches. Last year he had 36 catches, fourth-most on the team and most by a UA running back since Ka’Deem Carey in 2012, and 10 more receptions will pass Vance Johnson for tops by a Wildcat rusher in their career.

“All my life I always thought I was a receiver in my head,” Wiley said. “I trust my hands. It’s just second nature.”

Arizona’s other three backs combined for 14 catches and 90 yards, but they were thrown to 31 times. Wiley, on the other hand, hauled in 80 percent of his targets with only two drops and according to Pro Football Focus he graded higher than receiver Tetairoa McMillan and tight end Tanner McLachlan.

“For me, I feel comfortable in any situation catching the ball,” Wiley said. “That took time for me. Just work on it. Go to the Juggs (machine).”