There might not be a deeper position group on the Arizona Wildcats than running back.
All-Pac-12 talent J.J. Taylor is back for another season after rushing for the seventh-most yards in FBS (1,434). So is backup Gary Brightwell, who logged over 500 yards.
There is also Bam Smith, a redshirt freshman who flashed in limited action last season, as well true freshman Michael Wiley, who has received high—often unprompted—praise from the UA coaching staff throughout fall camp.
“Oh, he’s a great player,” said running backs coach DeMarco Murray. “He’s obviously a young guy, he still has to sharpen some things, and I think his sense of urgency needs to rise up a little bit more, but that’s with every 18, 19-year-old coming from high school to college. But he’s done a really good job, and he works extremely hard. So you can tell in high school that he was able to pick up the offense and things of that nature very quickly.”
The 5-foot-11, 186-pound Wiley was a three-star recruit out of Houston’s Strake Jesuit Prep, where last season he rushed for 1,569 yards and 19 touchdowns on just 186 carries (8.4 yards per carry)
Wiley also caught 15 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown.
“He’s very impressive,” said UA outside receivers coach Taylor Mazzone. “When the ball is in his hands, you know he’s going north and south somewhere. And we’re trying to add more things to his plate and he’s been taking it pretty well, just kind of learning the receiver position, playing in the backfield. It’s just impressive from a kid like that to show up and be ready to go.”
Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said Wiley has “some wiggle to him” as well, but the most impressive thing about his game is his football IQ.
“He’s got really good knowledge of the game, got a great feel for it, and any kind of freshman back that comes in at his size...you always worry about pass protection,” Mazzone said. “Both him and Bam have done a really good job there biting some ankles and trying to keep those linebackers off us.”
Even with a few other running backs vying for playing time ahead of Wiley, head coach Kevin Sumlin said after last Saturday’s scrimmage that the true freshman is putting himself in position to be on the travel squad and play in the Aug. 24 opener against Hawaii.
“He’s had some big plays in every live situation,” Sumlin said.
Taylor, whose 2,542 career rushing yards are 10th-most in program history, will still be the go-to ballcarrier, but having quality backups like Brightwell, Smith and Wiley should only help the redshirt junior perform at his peak when Arizona’s offense needs him most.
“As I told J.J., and we’ve told all these guys, the healthiest you is the best you,” Sumlin said. “And if we got guys that can add to the depth and can be fresh (we’ll use them). Because when running backs get tired, bad things happen. They get hurt or fumble the ball or go the wrong way and miss a cut.”
Tilford building confidence
Arizona’s RB depth doesn’t stop with Wiley. Former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford has had a strong camp too. The physical tools have always been there for Tilford, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 207 pounds, but the little things have prevented him from earning playing time, such as pass protection, receiving out of the backfield, and mastering the playbook.
But Murray, coaching Tilford for the first time, has been encouraged by what he has seen from the redshirt sophomore.
“Nate is obviously a really good talent, his size is unbelievable, but I think his confidence is finally starting to show,” Murray said. “He’s getting the reps and he’s understanding the offense. I think last year obviously it was a new offense, and things happen fast, the staff kind of got hired late, so he’s done a great job and working hard every day and not making the same mistakes.”