It’s almost a given that Gary Brightwell will be the Arizona Wildcats’ leader in offensive touches in Saturday’s game against USC. After that it’s anybody’s guess, though the smart money is on Michael Wiley.
The sophomore running back is set to debut a bulked up body for the UA’s 2020 opener after adding roughly 20 pounds to his 5-foot-11 frame during the offseason, now playing at 205. And with the Wildcats without two RB options—redshirt sophomore Bam Smith opted out of the season, while true freshman Frank Brown Jr. is dealing with a knee injury—Wiley could be in line for the most work of his young college career.
“He’s really worked hard this offseason,” Arizona running backs coach AJ Steward said of Wiley during preseason camp. “I think he looks like a total different running back, even from the spring when I got here. He looks further along than just a true sophomore who played a few snaps last year.”
Wiley appeared in all 12 games for Arizona in 2019, rushing for 106 yards on 31 carries while catching 18 passes (second-most among RBs) for 165 yards. He’s added punt return duties this year, listed as the starter at that position on the depth chart, making him “a guy you can use anywhere, at any position pretty much,” he said Tuesday via Zoom.
“That extra 20 pounds helped me break more tackles, just make people miss, and fall forward when I’m getting tackled, just give me that extra yardage when I need it,” he said, crediting Arizona’s strength and conditioning staff for his improvement. “They really helped me stay extra time and put on some weight. They are a really under-appreciated group in this program and I think they deserve a lot more credit.”
Wiley said Steward, who was hired in the winter to replace DeMarco Murray, has helped him work on minor details about his performance.
“Things that can put me in a position to be a better running back as far as like my track when I’m getting the ball, or how many steps for this route,” Wiley said. “Or my pass pro and blocking. Just to give me that edge.”
Another piece of the puzzle: being able to work out with quarterback Grant Gunnell and wide receiver Boobie Curry, who like Wiley are sophomores from the Houston area, during the spring and summer before players returned to campus.
“I think me and Grant have great chemistry,” he said. “Things like that can be great for us.”
Wiley believes he and Brightwell can make for a nice thunder-and-lightning combination in Arizona’s backfield, with his role that of the scat back who will “catch out of the backfield, like a third-down back.”
Yet it may be the punt return performance that is most essential to Arizona having success against USC. The Wildcats averaged 6.36 yards per return in 2019, fourth-worst in the Pac-12, though Wiley said making plays in that area isn’t as important as avoiding miscues.
“Looking at the ASU/USC game, they had two or three special teams turnovers, and so we want to eliminate that so we can win,” he said. “Being a punt returner they want you to make plays, but they also want you to be careful, they don’t want you to muff. Making sure I can secure the ball is enough for me and the team.”