The Arizona Wildcats trotted out five running backs in Saturday’s blowout win vs. Southern Utah, but sophomore Nathan Tilford wasn’t one of them.
The former four-star recruit is so far down on the depth chart that he did not travel with the team to Houston in Week 2 and finds himself behind guys like converted safety Anthony Mariscal, true freshman Darrius Smith and former walk-on Branden Leon.
“He’s just not where those guys are right now,” Coach Kevin Sumlin said of Tilford at his weekly press conference. “It’s like anything else, we play guys based on performance in practice and consistency. You’re going to make mistakes, but if that happens, let’s make sure we’re going where we need to go and we can get you on the field. So this is a performance-based business and operation and it’s not to that say that Nate is doing anything wrong or anything like that, we play the guys who perform in practice the best and that’s how you earn playing time. That’s the only fair way I know how to do it.”
It was hoped that Tilford, who had 13 carries for 121 yards last season, would benefit from a fresh start under a new coaching staff, but they evidently see him in a similar light as the old staff.
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said in fall camp that Tilford “looks good in a uniform” but needed to keep progessing as a receiver and blocker. He hinted that Tilford had trouble picking up the playbook, too.
“My job is to get the best players on the field to give us the best chance to win. That’s earned, not given.” Sumlin said. “It’s earned in practice, it’s earned in competition. So there’s no conspiracy theory or anything.”
Same goes for redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Michael Eletise, who has been unable to work his way into the rotation, despite being one of Arizona’s highest-ranked recruits in recent memory.
Brightwell standing out
Sumlin praised running back Gary Brightwell for his performance against Southern Utah. The redshirt freshman had nine carries for 86 yards, showing good burst and elusiveness.
Brightwell has arguably been Arizona’s top running back this year, carrying the ball 31 times for 155 yards. He is averaging more yards per carry (5.0) than starter J.J. Taylor, who has rushed 193 yards on 44 touches (4.4 ypc).
“I thought he ran hard. Moving from slot receiver to running back, I think he’s done a nice job,” Sumlin said of Brightwell. “He gives us a little bit bigger guy than J.J. and it’s a good change of pace. I’ve said before, we like to play two or three different guys to keep them healthy and keep them fresh and I think Gary has done nothing but get better. He missed a couple runs, a couple holes or cuts in the zone game, but you see on video that he made those cuts the other night and he’s getting better, which is a good thing because we can get a rotation there and keep those running backs fresh. He’s been a great addition to the backfield.”