J.J. Taylor had “no clue” why the Arizona Wildcats’ new coaching staff asked him to take on kick-returning duties — he had never returned kicks at Arizona before — but their reasoning is simple.
“What you want to do is give your team the best chance to be successful in all phases, which means that you want your best players out there,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said.
Taylor is certainly that. The 5-foot-8 running back has the breakaway speed to outrun defenders and the shiftiness to make them miss. And even though he’s short, he is not afraid to lower his shoulder against would-be tacklers.
That skill set is what makes him such an effective running back.
“He’s got a unique ability to make people miss and for his size, he’s got real power, so he’s explosive, he’s got everything you want in a return guy, particularly kickoff return and he wants to do it and that’s a big part of it because it’s not for everybody,” Sumlin said.
Taylor wants to return kicks because he wants to be on the field as much as possible, he said. Plus, he understands the importance of good field position, something the Wildcats struggled to establish last season. Not to mention they have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2010. (Technically, Cayleb Jones returned one for a TD in 2014, but that was an onside kick.)
“It’s a tempo-setter,” Taylor said. “If you do good on kickoffs, your offense is bound to do good. And when your offense does good, your defense is bound to do good.”
While Taylor said he returned four or five kicks for touchdowns in high school, he was not asked to play that position in his first two years at Arizona, so he called it a “new experience.”
“There were a lot of nerves racking up, but it was cool,” he said of his three kick returns against BYU which went for 71 yards.
The downside to having someone like Taylor returning kicks is the injury risk involved. Kickoffs are statistically the most dangerous play in football, and Taylor getting banged up would be a sizable blow to Arizona’s offense since he is the featured running back and the players behind him are unproven.
Sumlin understands that, but he is willing to take that chance if it means Taylor is getting more touches.
“You’re going as fast as you can down the field and they’re going as fast as they can and there’s some violent collisions in that deal, but the biggest part of that is he’s got the ability and the want to (do it) and I think he’s going to be dynamic at it,” Sumlin said. “No matter where I’ve been, the idea is to be as successful at all phases as you can and it’s no different than worrying about him being handed the ball in the backfield.”