Ever since Rich Rodriguez became the head coach of the Arizona Wildcats, the running game has been vital to the team’s success. If that’s still the case, then the ‘Cats are in good shape heading into 2019, as plenty of talented running backs are featured on the roster.
For two full years now, running back J.J. Taylor has been one of the most important cogs in Arizona’s offense. Even in September of his true freshman season in 2016, when the rest of the team was struggling mightily, Taylor showed plenty of flashes.
One injury and a medical redshirt later, and Taylor made en even bigger impact as a redshirt freshman in 2017, playing all 13 games and perfectly complementing quarterback Khalil Tate’s running skills.
While most of the team seemed to struggle last year with the coaching staff turnover, among other things, Taylor improved further. His per-carry average only dropped from 5.8 yards to 5.6 despite an extra 100 touches, making him the player with the 11th-most rushing attempts in the nation. He also ran for six touchdowns, and added a kick return score to boot.
Taylor is a lock to be the starter this year, and figures to be the second most important offensive player behind Tate. Despite being a tiny 5-foot-6 but a sturdy 184 pounds, he has become an electric player to watch and a safety blanket for the offense to lean on. Another 250-300 carries doesn’t sound ridiculous to me, and that’s with a running QB and a coach trying to pass more often. Being a 2000-yard rusher would be a surprise, but not a big one.
One could make a strong case that Taylor is the most underrated player in the Pac-12, and one of the more underrated running backs in the country, and that’s despite being on the Maxwell Award watch list. If something were to happen to a star like Taylor, coach Kevin Sumlin would need a replacement instantly to keep aiming for a bowl game. Luckily for him, there’s lots of depth behind Taylor.
The No. 2 option in 2018 (and presumably) in 2019 is Gary Brightwell. He made plenty of great plays as a reserve last year, rushing for 5.8 yards per carry and three scores. I don’t think anybody would call 6-foot-1, 206-pound Brightwell a power back or a wrecking ball, but he can be pretty hard to bring down, especially compared to most running backs both Rich Rodriguez and Sumlin have coached over the years.
Beneath Brightwell, there’s a lot of competition in the best way possible. Last season, the fans’ desire to see sophomore Nathan Tilford grew throughout the year, even as Taylor and Brightwell helped carry the team. He ended the season with exactly one run from scrimmage for one yard after rushing for 121 yards on just 13 carries in 2017.
Luckily, Tilford’s lack of playing time means he was redshirted last year, and he’ll almost certainly see the field more often despite the number of players who need carries. Tilford was by far the highest-rated running back on the roster out of high school, and considering that he may end up the third string despite no obvious signs of being a bust shows how strong Arizona is at this position.
Also entering the fray are two redshirt freshmen: Bam Smith and walk-on Nazar Bombata. Both fit that shifty archetype that Arizona has become known for, with Bombata being 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds and Smith weighing in at just 175 pounds at 5-foot-9.
Smith saw actual playing time last year, coming in with 98 yards on 23 carries and a TD. Not great numbers, but for a true freshman who’s a bit undersized it’s hard to complain. Bombata never saw the field last year, and will probably not see it much this year either as a walk-on. Still, his name is on the depth chart, and that can literally never hurt.
Last but not least is Michael Wiley, a true freshman from Houston. Part of Sumlin’s concerted effort to bring skill players from Texas into the program, Wiley has the potential to be Arizona’s lead rusher later in his career. Will that happen in 2019? Probably not given how loaded this group, but he can and likely will still appear in up to four games, and I bet he shows real glimpses of greatness for 2020 and beyond.
You want to know the craziest thing about all those names I just mentioned? None of them are seniors. Taylor and Brightwell are both juniors, though Taylor is a fourth-year junior, and it’s unlikely either of them leaves for the NFL after this year for various reasons. The only things that could really slow down this rushing attack, especially with Tate at quarterback, are injury and transfers.
Sumlin let a rash of transfers decimate his seemingly healthy program at Texas A&M, so the jury is out on whether all of these players will finish their careers in Tucson. And of course the injury bug can ruin almost any position group any given year. One thing is almost certain though, and that’s all these names will be on the roster and healthy in a month’s time. That should scare every defensive coordinator with Arizona on their schedule.