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Arizona football camp notes: On the ‘three-horse race’ at running back, still no separation in QB competition, and Bobby Bowden

Michael Wiley
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since Ka’Deem Carey set basically every school rushing record in 2013, Arizona’s run game has been one that’s lacked a true workhorse back. That figures to remain the case this fall, but not because of a lack of options.

Coach Jedd Fisch said Sunday night, after the Wildcats’ third preseason practice and first with any pads, that it’s “probably a three-horse race” for the starting running back spot. Sophomores Michael Wiley and Drake Anderson and true freshman Stevie Rocker Jr. appear to be the top candidates to get the job, though it’s very likely all three will play regularly.

“The running backs have been looking pretty good, Fisch said. “I’m pretty confident with the running back room. I like what they look like.”

Fisch said the days of running backs getting 28 to 32 carries a game have “gone by the wayside” and it makes more sense to use multiple rushers, both to keep them fresh during a game and make then durable for a season. J.J. Taylor averaged 21.3 carries per game in 2018, the only time a UA back has averaged 20 since Carey ran 349 times for 1,885 and 19 touchdowns in 12 games in 2013.

There still figures to be a pecking order, however. On Sunday, Wiley worked most with the first-team offense, with Rocker going second and Anderson third.

How much each of them, as well as sophomore Bam Smith and freshmen James Bohls and Jalen John, gets to play may come down to how well they take care of the ball. Good thing they have an expert in that in running backs coach Scottie Graham, who during his NFL career never fumbled any of his 364 carries.

Graham declined to say how he teaches his backs to avoid fumbles, but noted that when he Googled how to do so there was no information on the subject. “It’s all about how you take it.”

Wiley, who is back at full strength after dealing with hamstring issues during the spring, said Graham regularly notes the four pressure points of contact on a football.

“The wrist, biceps and chest, and the last one is just mental,” Wiley said. “Mentally, you just can’t fumble.”

Wiley said Graham doesn’t get outwardly mad when a fumble happens, but you can “kind of feel that tension” from him when it happens. Which makes sense considering the quote Anderson said is on the wall in the running back room.

“I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but it’s (something like) ‘it’s better to die as a young boy than to fumble the football.’ I think you can tell how serious ball security is.”

Quarterback battle remains tight, and not in a good way

In Arizona’s most high-profile three-man competition, quarterbacks Gunner Cruz, Jordan McCloud and Will Plummer remain neck and neck (and neck) for the starting job. That’s not ideal, Fisch said.

“Someone needs to separate themselves,” he said. “Someone needs to figure out whatever that competitive edge is, to find a way to be a difference maker. Right now we haven’t seen the separation we’re looking for.”

Going into fall camp Fisch and quarterback coach Jimmie Doughtery’s plan was to split the reps equally between the trio for the first five practices. With three in the books and not much decided, that may get extended.

“I’m not sure exactly who I would give 34 percent to … who I would give 35 percent to,” he said.

The Wildcats hit the field again at 6:30 p.m. Monday wearing shoulder pads and helmets, then after an off day Tuesday return for five consecutive workouts, and the first will introduce full pads.

“That Wednesday through Sunday area should be a great moving day” for the quarterbacks, Fisch said.

Fisch said he’s “of the hope” that Arizona should play only one quarterback, but isn’t bound to that. He said he’s been at places where they couldn’t settle on a single passer and made two work but would prefer not to have to go that route.

“You’d like to be able to have a starter, and then have a backup and have a third, and have that third compete to be the 2 and the 2 compete to be the one, but the two of them really do everything that can to build up the one,” he said.

Fisch remembers ‘icon’ Bowden

One of the winningest and most respected coaches in college football history passed away on Sunday, as Bobby Bowden died at age 91 after battling pancreatic cancer.

Bowden was best known for his 34-year run at Florida State, where he won more than 300 games and two national titles.

Fisch, who began his coaching career at rival Florida, said he met Bowden a few times over the years. After learning of Bowden’s terminal illness over the summer he said he started watching documentaries on the coaching legend.

“He’s an icon,” Fisch said. “From 1987 to 2000 he never had a team not in the top five. That’s an unbelievable 14-year run. You’ve really got to appreciate all he did.”