This is the fourth in a series of reports in which we try to determine if the Arizona Wildcats’ position groups are in strong, stable, unstable, serious or critical condition heading into spring ball, which begins Monday. Next up: running backs
Returning starter: J.J. Taylor
Backups: Gary Brightwell, Darrius Smith, Nathan Tilford, Michael Wiley
Departures: Branden Leon, Anthony Mariscal
The Arizona Wildcats have led the Pac-12 in rushing for each of the last three years. While the skillset of dual-threat quarterbacks certainly helped achieve those goals, the bulk of the workload goes to the running backs.
This season, the strongest position group might just be the running backs, and they are now led by former NFL star DeMarco Murray as their position coach.
Itʼs the same story for J.J. Taylor this year, where heʼs proven to be capable of carrying a full-time workload despite his size. Heʼs the focal point of the group and has the ability to run inside and out.
Heʼs a guy where you know exactly what you have. With 255 carries for 1,434 yards and six touchdowns last season, you donʼt need to run him all spring, just limit his contact and get some of these younger backs more touches.
Last year Gary Brightwell was sidelined with an injury after giving us a considerably heavy workload and proving that this can be a two-back system. He quietly cracked the 500-yard mark, taking 91 touches for 525 yards and three touchdowns.
Brightwell is more of a balanced back. He too can run inside and out, catch out of the backfield, and has enough wiggle and strength to get by or through defenders. The spring will be good for him to get back into rhythm and take a bigger workload this fall.
Now weʼre getting into the depth here and weʼll start with the returning guy who has the next most carries on the team, Darrius ‘Bam’ Smith.
The small back got some run time last season but was able to hold onto his redshirt status. He showed some good running abilities that make you optimistic for his future. Heʼs somewhat similar to Taylor, but his style appears to be more of a straight line, one-cut and go.
And here comes Nathan Tilford. A former four-star, top 200 guy, he came into the program with SEC size at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and absolutely shredded in high school.
Things didnʼt quite translate in his first season. His redshirt was burned in 2017 for a disappointing 13 carries for 121 yards. We all wanted to see him get more reps but at the time co-offensive coordinator Calvin Magee said he needed more time learning the fundamentals and pass blocking. The tools were there he just needed time.
Fast forward to the spring with a new running backs coach in Clarence McKinney and he echoed the previous coaching staff.
Tilford looks great when he has the ball, but needs to become a complete back in order to see the field.
It wouldnʼt have been surprising to see him go through the transfer portal wave over the last few months, but with Murray at the helm, perhaps heʼs the one that can take Tilfordʼs game to the next level.
Not yet with the team is Michael Wiley, Sumlinʼs lone rushing signee of the class. Heʼll be joining the team in the summer. While it seems tough to crack this depth chart, heʼll be able to get some time thanks to the four game redshirt rule.
This is a solid group and studying under a guy who did it at an NFL level. Arizonaʼs run game is crucial to winning games, and we’ve seen that the past few years. While the offensive line plays a heavy role in that, the talent is here at running back to get the ball rolling.
When you have Tilford as your fourth-best running back at the moment, a guy who has pure talent, youʼre in a pretty shape.
What condition are Arizona’s running backs in?
This poll is closed
Other position previews
- What condition are Arizona’s quarterbacks in heading into spring practice?
- What condition is Arizona’s defensive line in heading into spring practice?
- What condition are Arizona’s cornerbacks in heading into spring practice?
- What condition are Arizona’s tight ends in heading into spring practice?
- What condition are Arizona’s safeties in heading into spring practice?
- What condition is Arizona’s offensive line in heading into spring practice?
- What condition are Arizona’s linebackers in heading into spring practice?
- What condition is Arizona’s special teams in heading into spring practice?
- What condition are Arizona’s wide receivers in heading into spring practice?