The Arizona Wildcats have had a top-25 rushing attack in all but one of Rich Rodriguez’s four seasons in Tucson. With two powerful runners returning in the backfield in 2016, that success is expected to continue in Rodriguez’s fifth year.
Nick Wilson and Orlando Bradford will headline the running back depth, serving as a dynamic one-two punch. The two will take the pressure off whomever the starting quarterback is.
Key losses: Jared Baker, Jonathan Haden
Key returners: Nick Wilson, Orlando Bradford, Branden Leon, Zach Green
Key additions: J.J. Taylor
Arizona will be without two running backs from last season: Baker, who became an extremely reliable back when Wilson went down to injuries, and Haden, who announced that he would be transferring from the program after seeing limited time on the field.
Of course, various ankle, knee and foot injuries have kept junior running back Nick Wilson from having even more success than he’s had in his two years at the college level. He’s a violent downhill runner who can carry a large bulk of the workload.
Throughout the 2015 season, we saw glimpses of Orlando Bradford, who proved to be just as vicious as Wilson. He had 47 carries for 208 yards and three touchdowns in six games, with most of his work coming in the Oregon State and New Mexico games. Bradford is a bowling ball of a back, with a 5-foot-8, 206 pound frame.
Wilson is still going to get his carries, and it likely won’t be a situation where the staff micromanages his number of touches simply because he’s been injury-prone. But having Bradford there to spell Wilson from time to time will certainly help the longevity of both backs.
My guess is that Wilson will be the feature back, tallying around 17-23 carries a game, with Bradford getting around 10-15. But Rodriguez does like to go with the hot hand at running back, so obviously those numbers can fluctuate.
As for the third running back spot, that’s a big question mark. First, there’s sophomore walk-on Branden Leon, who received high praise this past spring from Rodriguez. I enjoyed watching him this spring and would like to think he has the edge as the third-down back for now.
And then there’s redshirt junior Zach Green. He’s had some conditioning issues throughout his career but finally seems to have things going in the right direction. Brandon Dawkins had good things to say about him this past spring.
Arizona came away with an absolute steal in the 2016 recruiting class, landing J.J. Taylor, the LA Times High School Running Back of the Year. He is an absolutely electrifying playmaker who is already being tested out in the return game by special teams coach Charlie Ragle.
Taylor is on the shorter side, checking in at 5-foot-6, 155 pounds, but Rodriguez has said himself before that Taylor isn’t necessarily small, just short. He has a pretty decent build to his frame, so durability shouldn’t be a concern, especially when you consider having him surrounded by Bradford and Nathan Tilford in the future.
There is a possibility that Taylor redshirts, but it appears unlikely right now.
That third running back spot — whether it’s Leon, Green or Taylor — would likely be situational, with Taylor having a bit more versatility, particularly in the passing game. But for Taylor, it will be all about learning the playbook and making that transition to the next level this fall.