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Arizona likely to stick with ‘fresh body’ approach at running back

4 different Wildcats carried the ball in the first 5 plays at San Diego State

arizona-wildcats-football-running-backs-wiley-williams-coleman-luke-scottie-graham-fisch-2022 Arizona Athletics

Michael Wiley got the start in Arizona’s season-opening win at San Diego State, the eighth of his career. He got the ball on the Wildcats’ first offensive snap, gaining eight yards, and was immediately subbed out for DJ Williams.

Williams, a Florida State transfer, carried it on the next two plays before getting replaced by true freshman Jonah Coleman for a successful fourth-down conversion. And after Coleman got four hard-fought yards on 4th-and-inches, in came true freshman Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke.

It was an assembly line of running backs for the UA on Saturday, with RBs coach Scottie Graham the one operating the conveyor belt from the sidelines and making sure the Wildcats always had a fresh back ready to go.

“I feel really strongly that we have four very good backs that are very capable of playing and helping us win a game,” head coach Jedd Fisch said. “We didn’t, as a coaching staff, want to have three of about the sideline until one got tired, so to speak. I think what we were able to do is, throughout the game, keep giving (San Diego State) a fresh body that they had to tackle.”

Arizona ran for 168 yards on 38 called run plays, more than in all but four games last season. It more than doubled the 82.2 yards-per-game average that SDSU allowed in 2021, when it ranked third nationally against the run.

“We felt like we could call the runs we wanted to call, and execute them,” Fisch said after the game.

That couldn’t have been accomplished without two things: running backs willing to share the load and able to make the most of their touches.

Graham said during training camp that an important part of his running back room was that “guys are gonna leave each other” and be strong teammates.

“The way I teach them my room, when we’re strong we’re strong together,” he said. “We’re not gonna be separate more. When it’s not my turn, I’m gonna cheer. And when I get my turn I’m gonna make a play.”

Arizona’s backs averaged about 4.4 yards per carry, and according to Pro Football Focus 136 of their 168 yards came after contact, or 3.7 yards per rush. Fisch credited strength coach Tyler Owens’ offseason weight program for that.

“Michael Wiley was breaking tackles more than he was a year ago,” Fisch said. “Jonah (Coleman) brought his weight down to 215 pounds. He was not letting the first guy tackle him very often. All those guys, you could see the benefit of our strength and conditioning program.”

Williams led Arizona with 14 carries and 88 yards, scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter on an option pitch from 10 yards out on which he broke multiple tackles. The Florida State transfer joined the team just before training camp.

“I think DJ is gonna get better,” Fisch said. “He didn’t have the summer conditioning program. He didn’t have the summer strength program. So he’s still doing a lot of extra in order for himself to be in the best shape of his life that he can be in for us. He’s a big body that plays with a good low center of gravity.”

Williams played the most snaps, 29 of Arizona’s 75 on offense, with Wiley in there for 25, Coleman for 16 and Luke eight. Williams (14) and Coleman (13) took the bulk of the snaps on run plays, while Wiley had 17 of his snaps come on pass plays that resulted in him being targeted four times with three catches for 18 yards.

“The amount of touches that each guy had was pretty close to what our goal was going to be for this game,” Fisch said.