J.J. Taylor will be the Arizona Wildcats’ featured running back this season, but there are plenty of touches to be had behind him.
The team has to replace Nick Wilson and Zach Green, who combined for 194 carries, 926 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns in 2017.
Sophomore Nathan Tilford seems like a natural fill-in.
The former four-star recruit boasts a 6-2, 200-pound frame along with some speed and elusiveness, making him an ideal complement to the shifty, 5-foot-6 Taylor.
“You’d like for a big guy like Nate to be to be your goal-line, short-yardage guy,” running backs coach Clarence McKinney said in April.
Tilford has a lot to prove before he’s ready for that role, though. He logged just 13 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns last season.
However, he did make a strong impression on Arizona’s new coaching staff in April, scampering for 91 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, showcasing a variety of spins, jukes and stiff arms.
And just like the rest of his teammates, he has a clean slate heading into the 2018 season.
“I don’t know about him last year, all I know is the progress he’s made from this spring,” said new UA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “He has to keep progressing. He’s big. He’s physical. He looks good in a uniform.”
While Tilford has all the physical tools to be successful, Mazzone said he needs to perfect the mental side of his game — learning Arizona’s new offense and knowing where he is supposed to be on each play — before he is ready to be a major contributor.
“Because (running backs) don’t only get to run the football, right?” Mazzone said. “They’ve got to also be involved in pass protection. They got to be involved in different formations and motions and all that information.”
And if Tilford can’t master the X’s and O’s?
“If you don’t know your playbook, you won’t play,” Taylor said of McKinney’s points of emphasis. “And if you don’t finish a play, you won’t play.”
Which, surprisingly, has been a weak point in Tilford’s game.
“He’s talented, he’s really talented. We just got to get him to understand what his weapons are,” McKinney said in April. “He’s the biggest guy in the room, we just want him to be more physical. He’s got some really good abilities.”