Rich Rodriguez and the Arizona Wildcats are left with the challenging task of replacing All-American Ka'Deem Carey this year, and it won't be easy, or pretty.
While Carey is looking to get playing time with the Bears, tons of guys are looking to get reps to be the long-term replacement in the Arizona backfield.
Key losses: Ka'Deem Carey, Daniel Jenkins
Key returners: Terris Jones-Grigsby, Jared Baker
Key newcomers: Nick Wilson, Jonathan Haden, Zach Green (redshirt), Adonis Smith (transfer - UNLV)
This will no doubt be a running back by committee sort of deal, especially early in the season. Like Coach Rodriguez said earlier this week, there are so many players in the competition that they have had to try and improve with limited reps, and no one has really stood out.
Jared Baker is the only back on this team that had carries last season in an Arizona uniform. He had 27 carries totaling 127 yards before he tore his ACL during the final regular season game against ASU. Baker also led the team in kick return yards in 2013, racking up 210 yards on nine attempts.
Baker has been a full participant throughout fall camp, which was sort of surprising given how late in the season he suffered the knee injury. But it wasn't surprising to him.
"Yeah and no," the running back said about the quick return. "They told me that I could come back if I worked hard, plus we've got all the resources in the world here. It feels good so that's all I'm really worried about now."
"It just seems like he hurt it a couple months ago," Jones-Grigsby said of Baker. "He says he's healthy and you can see it in practice."
"I feel good out there running, as good as I was before," Baker said early on in camp. "Each time I make a cut I'm feeling better and better about it."
Terris Jones-Grigsby, who is the younger brother of former Wildcat Nic Grigsby, has been getting the majority of first-team reps in camp, but has zero experience out of the backfield in the college game. As a redshirt senior, Jones-Grigsby has been a special teams player to this point with Arizona, making ten tackles last season.
Jones-Grigsby and Baker are roommates, so that could make for an interesting dynamic with possible two-back sets for them, and splitting carries early on this year.
Two freshmen are looking to get significant playing time this year. Nick Wilson and Jonathan Haden are those two guys. Wilson is the bigger back, checking in at 5-10, 199 pounds, almost exactly what Ka'Deem was last season. Haden at 5-6, 181 brings that smaller, more electrifying dynamic to the Arizona backfield. Haden had been in school during the spring, but the NCAA Clearing House did not allow him to practice last semester, which may have cost him a legitimate chance at being a top-two option to start the season.
And then there's Adonis Smith, who played at UNLV last year, and Northwestern for two years before that. Smith has the most actual game experience of all the running backs this year, having appeared in 29 collegiate games so far. Last season, he had 28 rushing attempts for the Rebels, nine receptions, and returned eight kicks. He did have two rushing touchdowns in their game against Western Illinois. Since Smith is a senior, there's no doubt he'll see some action early in the year, because why bring him in to just have him sit?
Zach Green, who redshirted last season, looks like he got passed by some of these true freshmen, which is unfortunate for him. Of course he can always play his way up the depth chart. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Arizona ran all six of these guys out there for each of the three non-conference games just to see who performs the best in game situations before the Pac-12 schedule starts.
It's going to be the exact opposite of last season, but that's no reason to get down about this group. Also, with the passing game as a much bigger threat, there won't be as many defenders up front to stop these guys. Combine that with the experienced offensive line, and you could see some guys break some big runs and play themselves into more carries.
And they all have a different running styles, which could turn into an advantage in the long-run, as opponents will have to gear up for all kinds of looks coming out of the backfield.