After losing the school's all-time leading rusher in Ka'Deem Carey following the 2013 season - and Daniel Jenkins, his backup - the Arizona Wildcats were expected to take a step back at the running back position in 2014.
After all, Jared Baker was the only running back on the roster that had any in-game experience, yet he only tallied 47 carries over his first two years, and had just 25 in 2014. He was also coming off a torn ACL.
As such, there was no clear-cut replacement for Carey, and naturally a training camp battle between Baker, former walk-on Terris Jones-Grigsby, true freshman Nick Wilson, and UNLV transfer Adonis Smith would determine the new workhorse of Rich Rod's dynamic running game.
Training camp ended, and Terris Jones-Grigsby won the starting job, though it was still "running back by committee". In the season opener against UNLV, Jones-Grigsby ran for 124 yards on just 13 carries. Nick Wilson, the team's second-leading rusher in the game, finished with 104 rushing yards on 7 carries, including an 85-yard touchdown run.
Unfortunately, an injury would force Jones-Grigsby to miss the next two games against UTSA and Nevada. Nick Wilson, after impressing in the season opener, figured to be the guy to get the start in Jones-Grigsby's place. And he made the most of it.
Against UTSA, Wilson carried the ball 30 times for 174 yards, and a touchdown. The following week against Nevada, Wilson had 29 carries for 171 yards and two touchdowns.
Wilson effectively became the top running back option on the team, and finished the season with 236 carries for 1375 yards and 17 touchdowns (16 on the ground, and one via pass). His 5.8 yards per carry mark was actually better than Ka'Deem Carey's average in 2013. Wilson was able to replace Carey as well as you realistically could've asked for.
However, not everything about Wilson's inaugural season was encouraging. One serious concern about Wilson is his durability - or lack thereof. He suffered two concussions last season - one in the fourth game of the year against Cal, and one in the Fiesta Bowl. He was also hampered by a nagging ankle injury.
That ankle injury limited his effectiveness against Oregon, then forced him to miss the game against USC -- a significant game to miss considering the Wildcats averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in that game, and ended up losing by just two points.
Wilson returned to action after that, but he still was rather limited by the injury. Against Washington State and UCLA he had a total of 19 carries for just 36 yards.
Wilson had hit a mid-season slump.
Maybe he was just homesick. Nearly an entire month went by between home games for Arizona. USC visited Tucson on October 11th, and now Colorado was in town on November 8th. Nick Wilson ended up thrashing the Buffaloes' defense, finishing with 153 rushing yards on 7.3 yards per carry. The Nick Wilson from the beginning of the year was back.
Over the next three games, the freshman accumulated 498 yards on the ground, including a 218 yard performance up in Salt Lake City. His excellence was a huge reason why Arizona finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak, and of course, Pac-12 South Champions.
The storyline for the 2015 season will be a bit different. There is no running back battle this time. We know Nick Wilson is the featured back, and we know just how good he is. He is a strong, powerful runner that has good vision, and breakaway speed. He can take one to the house from 80 yards out, and also fight for a first down in a short yardage situation. He has the total package as a runner, and is an outstanding player -- when he's healthy.
Running backs are going to get hit, and they are going to get hit often. It's the nature of the position. For that reason, the coaching staff has been extremely cautious with Wilson, and even held him out of contract drills during spring practice.
"Nick will do a lot of things in the spring, but we won't put him in any of the full contact things," Rich Rodriguez said (via Tucson.com). "He's proven himself. I think he'll be perfectly fine going forward. There's no use for Nick to get banged around this spring."
It's the same reason why I expect Wilson to be coddled a bit early in the season. Arizona's first three games are against UTSA, Nevada, and Northern Arizona. In all honestly, those games should be relatively easy wins, or at the very least, a time when Nick Wilson's contributions aren't needed as heavily as they will during Pac-12 play.
Instead, other running backs, like Jared Baker, Jonathan Haden, and Orlando Bradford, can get valuable in-game experience. It's truly a win-win situation.
However, when things get serious, Arizona won't be able to protect him forever.
Eventually, Arizona is going to need him going full force on the field if they want to repeat as Pac-12 South Champions.
They're going to need him when there's a 3rd-and-3 with the game on the line. They're going to need him to churn out yards and make things easier for Anu Solomon when competing against the tougher defenses in the Pac-12. They need his running ability to have a more balanced and effective offense.
But will he be there to deliver?