Despite being without two of their top running backs for most of Saturday’s win vs. Cal, highly-touted freshman Nathan Tilford didn’t see the field for the Arizona Wildcats.
Nick Wilson (ankle injury) and J.J. Taylor (targeting) each exited in the first quarter, but Rich Rodriguez turned to redshirt senior Zach Green to carry the load.
He did well to say the least, rushing for a career-high 130 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
But when Green needed a breather, Rodriguez turned to former walk-on Branden Leon instead of Tilford, a former four-star recruit and the top-ranked player in UA’s 2017 recruiting class.
“Why? Because he’s behind Zach. He’s behind Branden. He’s behind J.J. He’s behind Nick,” Rodriguez answered. “And so if something would have happened to Zach then Branden, then Nathan was the next guy in. So he’s close. He’s almost there … but he’s behind those guys.”
And, no, Tilford isn’t redshirting.
Even though he has only carried the ball in two games, Tilford has appeared in six games this year, per his bio on the UA’s website.
Tilford enrolled early at the UA, allowing him to participate in spring ball, and many thought he would be Arizona’s No. 3 running back heading into the season. He just hasn’t been able leap frog veterans like Green and Leon for whatever reason.
Because of Khalil Tate’s recent emergence — he was somehow buried behind Brandon Dawkins — it’s fair to wonder if Tilford’s place on the depth chart is justified.
When Tilford has played, he’s been impressive, tallying 116 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries — albeit it came against Northern Arizona and UTEP, and 65 of those yards were on one carry.
“Nathan is going to be good,” Rodriguez assured. “He’ll be a good player."
Meanwhile, Rodriguez has liked what he’s seen from Leon, who earned a scholarship at the end of fall camp.
Leon had two carries for eight yards while providing some nice blocks in pass protection against Cal.
“I thought Branden Leon did a nice job when he went in there a little bit,” Rodriguez said.
Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire