Last year, the Arizona Wildcats posted the best rushing numbers in the Pac-12.
The ‘Cats averaged 235.0 yards per game, and that was with multiple running backs injured and a converted wide receiver (Samajie Grant) carrying the load at the end of the season.
Key Losses: Samajie Grant (sort of)
Key Returners: J.J. Taylor, Nick Wilson, Zach Green
Key Newcomers: Nathan Tilford, Gary Brightwell
One of the major positives for UA’s running back group is that all of its key members return from last season, except Grant. Another major positive for the group is the large amount of diversity in running styles.
There are multiple running styles that now reside in the Wildcat backfield. This can be a great asset for UA and a difficult aspect of their game for opposing defenses to stop.
Nick Wilson is a legit playmaker and game-changer. He had a heck of a freshman year and looked to continue that success throughout his career. Unfortunately, the injury bug has bit him consistently, including last year.
Wilson runs with quickness, mixed with power and can be tough to stop once he gets going. He should be good to go for fall camp and on Sunday he said he is up to 210-212 pounds and feels stronger than ever. The only thing potentially holding Wilson back from success is an injury.
Behind Wilson is explosive redshirt freshman J.J. Taylor. The human joystick made defenders look silly in his four games played last year before suffering a season-ending ankle injury against Washington. I picked him as one of the five most important offensive players this upcoming season and if he stays healthy he’ll be an integral part to the offensive attack this year.
Another back who saw extensive time last year due to injuries is Zach Green. The 5-foot-10, 229-pound power back had his first career 100-plus rushing yard game in the Territorial Cup last year.
One back I was pleasantly surprised with last year is walk-on redshirt sophomore Branden Leon. During his limited time last year he showed what he can do. He runs with aggression and speed, hitting the hole pretty hard. At 5-foot-8 and around 200 pounds, he is solidly built and could prove to be difficult to bring down. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on the field again this year.
Arizona’s premier newcomer is Nathan Tilford, the highest-ranked prospect in UA’s 2017 class. At 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, Tilford is built unlike any Wildcat running back in recent memory. He physically looks like a college running back and has the skill to back it up. He enrolled early and participated in in spring camp for UA. It will be absolutely no surprise to see him earn carries this year and be a major part of the running attack.
Gary Brightwell is another newcomer, who caught the eye of the Arizona staff late in the recruiting process. At 6-foot-1 and 196 pounds, he is another big back who is more of a north-to-south runner with power and toughness. He could add a little more weight onto his frame and become a dominant power back. The most likely scenario is that he will redshirt this year, barring a few injuries.
Another newcomer to the program has already been at a Division 1 school and that is Memphis transfer Quincy Wimbish. Wimbish participated in spring camp with the Wildcats and showed some good attributes. He ran with aggression and kept his feet moving once contact was made. He runs bigger than his size and it would also not be surprising to see the Southern California native get carries this year.
Local walk-on Dakota Poe is an intriguing running back. At 6-foot-1, he has impressive shiftiness for his size. However, the name of his game is speed. He can find a hole in the defense and blasts through it, outrunning the defense. One thing he needs is a little more weight on him while maintaining his speed. I’d expect him to redshirt this year but he should be a solid member for the running back stable in the future.
Last of the newcomers is Noah Pittenger. Pittenger is a small back, but runs like he’s 210 pounds. He has impressive speed and quickness. He is built like J.J. Taylor in a way. He is on the shorter side but solid. He also has a toughness to his game, embracing contact when it’s necessary. He is actually fun to watch and is someone that could easily see the field in the future.
Going through the list there are a lot of solid options at running back and that should help the Wildcats continue to be dominant in the ground game. The key for the group is to stay healthy. If everything falls into place, it is not hard to imagine Arizona having the top rushing attack in the conference, and possibly one of the top ground games in the nation.