Despite prolific high school careers, neither Colin Schooler nor J.J. Taylor drew much interest from Pac-12 schools. Schooler had one offer — from Arizona. Taylor had two — from Arizona and Washington State.
Both became Wildcats. Both have proved they belong.
Schooler was named Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year on Tuesday. Taylor was named co-Offensive Freshman of the Year.
The linebacker and tailback are the second and third UA players to earn conference freshman-of-the-year honors, joining receiver Mike Thomas (2005). They’re at the forefront of a youth movement that has Rich Rodriguez and others bullish on Arizona’s immediate future.
“We had a lot of young guys that stepped in and did some neat stuff,” said Rodriguez, whose team closes the season against Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl on Dec. 27. “I know it’s got us excited, and I hope it’s got our fans excited for what’s going to take place the next few years at the U of A.”
Schooler, a three-star recruit from California’s Mission Viejo High School, became Arizona’s starting “Mike” linebacker in Game 5 against Colorado. The more comfortable the true freshman became, the better he played. Schooler is tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with 13.5 tackles for losses – all coming in league play.
Schooler’s 88 total tackles are tied for 13th in the conference and are the second most among freshman linebackers — behind teammate Tony Fields II (91). Schooler reached double figures in tackles in four of Arizona’s final six regular-season games.
Asked late in the season where Schooler had made the most progress, UA linebackers coach Scott Boone said: “It’s more about his ability to communicate with the rest of the defense as to what we’re doing. That was part of the problem early in the season. He was just barely learning what he had to do; now he’s gotten to the steps where he can get the other guys lined up correctly and make the checks we have to make.”
Schooler flashed playmaking ability as early as September. He forced a fumble and returned an interception 53 yards against UTEP in Week 3.
Schooler’s teammates and coaches ribbed him for not scoring on that play. He one-upped himself five games later with a 66-yard pick-six against Washington State.
Schooler’s signature play did not count toward his statistics. He broke up a pass on a two-point conversion attempt in double overtime at Cal on Oct. 21. Had they completed it, the Golden Bears would have won the game. Instead, the Wildcats escaped with a 45-44 victory.
“Obviously, it was win or lose for us,” Schooler said after the game. “I had a man-on-man situation. It was a 50/50 ball. Luckily, he didn’t come down with the ball.”
Earlier in that game, Taylor was disqualified on a questionable targeting call. It was the low point in what turned out to be a breakout season.
Taylor, a three-star recruit from Corona, California’s Centennial High School, has rushed for 828 yards, second most on the team behind sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate. Taylor averages 6.1 yards per rush and has seven total touchdowns (two receiving).
After a somewhat slow start, Taylor finished strong. In his first five games, Taylor carried 58 times for 258 yards (4.4-yard average) and one touchdown. In the past seven games, he has 78 carries for 570 yards (7.3) and four TDs.
A few days after the Cal game, Taylor was asked about being on the verge of a personal breakthrough.
“It’s not even a focus of mine,” he said. “I’m more focused on developing as a player and handling my assignments the way they’re supposed to be handled. Stats and carries don’t mean anything to me, as long as we win games. That’s all I’m here for.”
Taylor appeared to be on his way to an all-conference type of season in 2016 before suffering a broken ankle in Week 4 against Washington. Taylor had 265 rushing yards in the preceding seven quarters before getting hurt.
Because the injury happened so early in the season, Taylor was able to redshirt, making him eligible for the Offensive Freshman of the Year award. He shared it with Stanford tackle Walker Little.
Schooler was among six Wildcats to earn All-Pac-12 honorable mention. Although Arizona led the conference in scoring, total offense and rushing offense, no UA players received first- or second-team recognition from the league’s coaches.
In addition to Schooler, the following players were honored: offensive linemen Jacob Alsadek and Nathan Eldridge; Tate; tailback Nick Wilson; and return specialist Shun Brown.
Alsadek and Eldridge started all 12 regular-season games for the Wildcats at right guard and center, respectively. Arizona has allowed the fewest sacks in the league (15). Alsadek made Pro Football Focus’ All-Pac-12 first team.
Despite starting only seven games, Tate ranks fifth in the conference in rushing (1,353 yards). He’s sixth in passing efficiency. Tate won an unprecedented four consecutive Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week awards in October. But he didn’t play a full season, and his total body of work couldn’t quite match that of all-league selections Sam Darnold (USC) and Josh Rosen (UCLA).
Wilson shares time with Taylor. The senior has rushed for 585 yards and six touchdowns in 10 games. He also became the seventh player in school history to top 3,000 career yards.
Brown ranks second in the Pac-12 in punt-return average at 12.9 yards per attempt. He has two touchdowns. The coaches bypassed him for Utah’s Boobie Hobbs, who has a 10.7-yard average and zero TDs. Washington’s Dante Pettis (19.5-yard average, four TDs) was a clear choice for the first team.
Other Wildcats deserving of league recognition included cornerbacks Jace Whittaker and Lorenzo Burns. Whittaker is fourth in the league in passes defensed (13) and tied for fifth in interceptions (three). Burns leads the league in picks (five) and is tied for fifth in passes defensed (12).
Schooler’s older brother, Brenden, a sophomore at Oregon, made first-team all-conference as an all-purpose/special-teams player.