Running the ball is starting to feel like a dying art in football, whether it be in the NFL where the past two seasons have seen only nine players apiece top 1,000 rushing yards, or in the college game where many teams throw the ball more than they run it.
Yet Arizona has managed to lead the Pac-12 in rushing for three straight seasons, averaging at least 200 yards per game each year. And J.J. Taylor has been a big part of that production the past two years, including in 2018 when his 1,434 yards were second-best in the conference and fourth-most in school history.
That yardage didn’t come easy for Taylor, who carried it 255 times in 12 games including 118 times during Arizona’s final four games, doing so without suffering any notable injury.
“We rode him pretty hard last year,” offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said.
As a result, Taylor enters his junior season with the fifth-most carries (401) of any active FBS player over the past two years. Another workload like 2018 and he’ll be just the third Wildcat with back-to-back 200-carry seasons, the others being school career rushing leader Ka’Deem Carey and No. 4 career rusher Mike Bell.
The hope is that the 5-foot-6, 185-pound Taylor won’t have to carry the rock as much this fall thanks to a deep running back group that includes junior Gary Brightwell, redshirt sophomore Nathan Tilford, redshirt freshman Bam Smith and true freshman Michael Wiley.
“All the running backs in the running back room have really been working on everything,” Taylor said. “We’re all ready for our names to get called.”
Just as long as Taylor’s is called most, and as often as possible, Mazzone said.
“We’re not giving him a lot of scrimmage reps right now during camp, just kind of saving him a little bit, but he still puts in the most mileage every day,” he said. “He gets pissed when he doesn’t get to practice. He wants to be in there every snap.”
Said Taylor: “That’s just me. As an athlete, nobody likes to sit out.”
Taylor had to do just that for the final four games of the 2016 season after breaking his ankle in his first career start (but not before gaining 97 yards on 19 carries). He ran for 261 yards on just 38 touches that year, which went down as a medical redshirt, and since then he’s managed to “get through” without any significant injuries thanks to a dedicated effort to make his body prepared for the abuse that ball carriers take.
“Just staying in there with the strength coaches, doing extra stuff like (with my neck) and mobility,” Taylor said. “Just trying to make sure we’re ready.”
With 2,542 career rushing yards, Taylor needs 1,698 to pass Carey for the school mark. That could potentially happen late this season—especially if Arizona gets to play in a bowl game—or early on in his senior year, assuming he opts not to enter the NFL Draft.