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The tale of Nick Wilson

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How will the Arizona running back be remembered?

NCAA Football: Arizona vs Brigham Young Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When the Arizona Wildcats take on the Purdue Boilermakers on Wednesday, Nick Wilson will be playing in his 38th career game for the Wildcats, and the former four-star prospect has a chance to jump into the top five for career rushing yards in program history.

Wilson, who has rushed for 3,009 yards, is only 87 yards away from sixth place on UA’s all-time leaderboard and 154 yards away from fifth.

It’s possible he will reach the 87 yards needed to tie Hubert Oliver for sixth place considering his career average is 81 yards per game.

The 154 yards he needs to tie Mike Bell for fifth place may seem like an unreasonable feat. However, Wilson has reached or exceeded that mark four times as a Wildcat.

Wilson currently ranks second in career rushing touchdowns with 33 trailing only Ka’Deem Carey’s 48. Wilson also ranks third in yards per attempt with 5.5 (assuming a minimum of 500 carries).

Despite all these accomplishments, Wilson’s legacy will likely involve a “what if?” narrative. What if he played in 42 games like Trung Canidate or Ontiwaun Carter? Or even 46 games like Mike Bell?

As a true freshman, Wilson played in 13 of the Wildcats’ 14 games. He compiled 236 rushes for 1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns. His rushing game was always stronger than his receiving game, however, he did tally 12 receptions for 90 yards and another touchdown.

There was plenty to be excited about after his All Pac-12 Honorable Mention freshman season. Little did anyone know that the 2014 season would be the pinnacle of his four-year career.

His sophomore campaign picked up right where he left off. In those first four games, Wilson rushed for 559 yards and five touchdowns. He played in the next two games where he rushed for only 46 and 78 yards, respectively. This may have felt like decline of production but he managed to find the endzone three times.

After Arizona’s 44-7 destruction of Oregon State on October 10, 2015, Wilson’s career was never the same. He only played in three of the team’s final seven games that season and recorded 18 rushes for 42 yards with no touchdowns.

His absence or lack of production over the second half of the 2015 season was certainly a point of concern. However, his health was reportedly back to 100 percent as he entered his junior season.

The 2016 season began exactly like we had seen in his prior two seasons. He rushed for 138 yards and two touchdowns in UA’s season-opening 18-16 loss to BYU. The following week he played a key role in surviving a major upset loss to Grambling State as he rushed for 116 yards and touchdown.

All indications suggested that Wilson was back and had rebounded from an injury riddled sophomore season. Then, the very next week, he suffered an injury that forced to into an early exit from a home game against Hawai’i.

The Wildcats would go on to win that matchup and improve their record to 2-1 but Wilson’s early exit proved to be more devastating than originally perceived. He would play in only two of the next four games before suffering a season-ending injury during practice of their bye week.

After starting the season with 254 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 41 carries in those first two games, he went on to record only 66 yards on 14 carries and never found the endzone.

It was a disappointing junior season but more importantly a very concerning one. There were now serious questions and doubts surrounding his durability. He had only played in 14 games over the 2015 and 2016 seasons and he was forced into early exits in a handful of them.

Fall camp leading into the 2017 season involved a similar narrative to the previous seasons. Wilson was healthy and ready to get his career back on track. However, he would end up missing the team’s week two matchup against Houston after a strong season premiere but found his way back to the field in week three.

Later in the season there was a rough three-game stretch that started with the Cal game in week nine where he was once again forced into an early exit after recording only five yards on two carries. He would miss the following week against Washington State and register only two carries for seven yards against USC.

The 2017 season can be considered a bounce back. His appearance in 10 games is the most since 2014. And statistically speaking, his 120 carries for 585 yards and six touchdowns is far more productive than 2016. For all of this, he was rewarded with another All Pac-12 Honorable Mention.

It’s not fair to expect Wilson to have played in all 51 games thus far in his career. It may not even be fair to expect a running back to play in 90 percent of his career games given the pounding he can take weekly.

However, let’s assume Wilson played in 46 career games which is approximately 90 percent of the 51 games that UA has played to this point of his career. If he had maintained his average of 81 yards per game over that stretch, he would be sitting on 3,749 career yards which is good for third place in program history.

Ka’Deem Carey’s 4,239 career yards may never be touched. It’s remarkable to think that he was able to accomplish this mark over three seasons while missing only two games. This should be considered an anomaly rather than the standard.

Say what would you like about Wilson’s durability but there’s no denying he’s extremely talented. He was a major reason for UA’s 2014 Pac-12 South championship and trip to a New Year’s Six bowl game as well as two winning seasons over the past the three.

So what if Wilson didn’t miss 14 career games? What if he missed eight instead? We can only speculate on the outcomes but it’s fair to say his legacy should follow a narrative that’s consistent with the other top five rushers of UA history.

He should be remembered for averaging 5.5 yards an attempt on 554 carries and recording 15 100-yard performances in 37 games prior to the Foster Farm’s bowl game. He should be remembered for being one of the most prolific running backs in Arizona football history.

On Wednesday night, Wilson will take the field for the final time wearing an Arizona Wildcats uniform.

He will have the chance to finish his career as a top-five rusher in program history. Whether or not he achieves this feat, his career has been an impressive one and he has given the Wildcat faithful plenty of great memories, nonetheless.