The Arizona Wildcats’ depth was a concern heading into the season, and three games in it’s already being put the test, especially at running back.
Starting running back Nick Wilson, who’s had health issues in the past, left the Hawaii game early with an injury and didn’t return, and Orlando Bradford, Wilson’s backup, was kicked off the team after being arrested last week.
J.J. Taylor, previously the team’s third-string running back, saw a major workload against Hawaii as a result and he shined, running for 168 yards on just 18 carries and making several defenders look silly in the process.
But it was only one game and while Arizona’s coaching staff is high on Taylor, UA head coach Rich Rodriguez is still concerned about the team’s running back depth.
"Let’s not put too much pressure on a guy and expect him to get 150 yards against every team," Rodriguez said Monday at his weekly press conference. "We feel comfortable that J.J. is pretty solid for sure, [but]...we still have concerns because we like to play two or three and it’s a long season and our depth slowly getting thinner at several positions but especially at running back."
To help combat the thinning depth, Rodriguez said Tyrell Johnson — normally a slot receiver — will practice as running back full-time.
"Most of his practice time has been spent at slot receiver, and now most of it will be spent at running back," Rodriguez said. "We have other guys that can play running back too, but Tyrell is the first one that we kind of move over full-time."
Like Taylor, speed and elusiveness is the name of the game for Johnson. He's a member of Arizona's track and field team, and it was put on display against Hawaii when he zoomed past the Warriors’ defense for a 24-yard touchdown on a reverse play.
For his career, Johnson has 10 carries in total, most of which were as a wide receiver on gadget plays, but he’s also Arizona’s primary kick returner as he’s accumulated around 1,200 kick return yards in three seasons with the Wildcats. Point being, he does have a decent amount of experience carrying the ball.
Arizona also has running backs Zach Green and Branden Leon (a walk-on) at its disposal — and Rodriguez mentioned that a few others could move to the position if necessary — so it's not clear where Johnson sits on the depth chart.
At minimum, though, Johnson will be an option if the UA's running back depth continues to wane and/or Wilson's injury keeps him sidelined moving forward (we should have more information about it on Thursday).
Plus, it's not a bad idea to utilize Johnson's speed as much as realistically possible, and the switch to running back should get him on the field more often.
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