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Expectations high for Arizona’s ‘diverse’ group of running backs

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Nathan Tilford
Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The only problem in Arizona’s running back room is that there’s a lot of talent but only one football to go around. AJ Steward considers himself the luckiest position coach in the country.

“I think we’re very diverse in our group,” he said. “We have a couple big guys, we have some one-cut guys, we have some guys who can catch the ball out of the backfield, run really good routes. But the common denominator is the work ethic you see daily. There’s no drop off.”

It means Arizona is well equipped to replace fifth all-time leading rusher J.J. Taylor who now plays for the New England Patriots, beginning with his former understudy Gary Brightwell—a one-cut runner with a big frame and 4.3 speed.

As Taylor’s backup the last two seasons, Brightwell rushed for 915 yards and eight touchdowns on a super productive 5.9 yards per carry.

And heading into what could be his final season at Arizona—the senior said he hasn’t decided if he will return in 2021—he’s highly motivated to show out for scouts. Brightwell hasn’t been shy about his NFL aspirations in the past, saying he “doesn’t have a backup plan.

“Honestly, I feel as though I have the same role, it’s just is go time to me now,” Brightwell said Friday, the only UA running back to speak to the media this preseason. “There’s no more second chances. When [Taylor] was here, I was learning, I would learn from my mistakes. I don’t really have no time for mistakes right now.”

Especially since Steward basically listed sophomore Michael Wiley as Arizona’s 1B. The elusive runner was the team’s best pass-catching tailback as a true freshman and should have more power as a ballcarrier now that he’s added 16 pounds to his 5-foot-11, 202-pound frame.

“He’s done a great job, soaks up every piece of coaching that he can get,” Steward said. “He’s worked really hard in the weight room, put on some good weight. I think he looks like a totally different running back, even from the spring when I first got here. He’s fully invested and you could just tell the way he’s playing right here right now at camp, he looks further along than just a true sophomore that played a few snaps last year.”

Redshirt junior Nathan Tilford doesn’t quite have the big-play ability of Brightwell and Wiley, but he’s a bruiser that has been highly effective in short-yardage situations. The former four-star recruit has six touchdowns in 13 career games, including four TDs in eight games last year.

“I love his mentality, very coachable,” Steward said. “Every time he gets in, he gets yards. I see it posted on Twitter and all that, but that’s true. When he gets in, good things happen ad he’s been working really hard trying to clean up his game as is every other running back in our group, just finding those things that they need to need to clean up in order to take the next step in their development and their progression.”

The Wildcats saw their fourth-most used running back, redshirt sophomore Bam Smith, opt out of the season due to COVID concerns, but it’s not a huge loss because they have Jalen John and Frank Brown Jr., a pair of freshmen who Steward said are advanced for their age and could crack the rotation as early as this season depending how they perform in the final two weeks of camp.

Even then, Steward admitted the depth chart is always fluid.

“Whoever gets it done in practice is going to be the one that’s gonna take the majority of the reps in the game and then some of it is just a feel thing in the game,” he said. “I’ve gone into a lot of games with an idea of what I want to do and had to throw the script out of the window because a guy was hot or a guy just was killing it out there.”

A former track star, Brown averaged a whopping 13.8 yards per carry in his senior season at Sterling High School in Houston, Texas. He has received praise from several UA coaches and players this preseason.

“What you see on his high school highlight, every time he touches it something exciting is going to happen,” Steward said. “So we’re just trying to clean up his game and teach him that at this level. Not every player is gonna be a 60-yard huddle highlight. He’s learning to play the running back position and be more professional about the down-to-down approach.”

John, listed at 5-11, 222 pounds, is a downhill runner, making him a good complement to Brown.

“He looks like a junior if you look at him in his pads,” Steward said. “He’s very well put together, very downhill style of running back, not afraid of contact, good in pass [protection], so I’m really excited about both of these guys. I think they’ll have tremendous careers here and once again I don’t say that based on talent alone. I say that just based on how these guys approach the meetings and practice every single day. I’ll always go out on a limb for those guys because I know what you put in is what you usually get out, so I have high expectations for those guys.”

Clearly, because Steward harped that he expects his running backs to be sharp in every aspect of the game, not just their ability to make yards.

“So if we’re calling to pick up a blitz, we should want to put the best blitz pick up on film possible,” he said. “We don’t just take pride in when they hand us the ball and we got 10 guys working for us. If we’re running a swing route, we want it to be the best looking swing route you ever see from running back when you turn on film. ... We can carry out a fake or catch a ball out of the backfield, beat a linebacker one on one. Whatever you ask us to do, we’re gonna try to do it to the best of our ability.”

It remains to be seen if Arizona can divvy up the snaps in a way to keep the running backs happy, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue if they all have Brightwell’s attitude.

“I don’t mind sharing,” he said. “It’s not a one-man show.”

Besides, in a season where players could miss games for positive COVID-19 tests and injuries could be more prevalent due to a shortened preseason, the running back room’s biggest problem could actually be solved for them.

“Time and attrition usually sets in, you have different things that happen during the season, we have different packages to get guys on the field, and so we just take it day by day,” Steward said. “You’ve got to earn it, you’ve got to earn your right to have success on Saturday, and that’s kind of how we’ve been rolling.”