Khalil Tate isn’t the only prodigy on the Arizona Wildcats’ roster.
Tailback Nick Wilson used to be that guy. OK, maybe not quite that guy. But Wilson was pretty darned good.
He rushed for more yards — 1,375 — than any UA freshman ever has in 2014. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns. Arizona had its successor to All-American Ka’Deem Carey.
Wilson was on pace to match or exceed his freshman rushing total the following season. That’s when misfortune first struck. It would become a pattern.
Wilson would take one step forward — and the next into a protective boot.
A series of knee, ankle and foot issues curtailed Wilson’s effectiveness or kept him out of the lineup altogether. He surpassed 100 yards 10 times in his first 17 games. It has happened only three times since.
But despite all the bumps and bruises, the frequent appearances on the injury report, the countless hours spent rehabbing and the ridicule from unsympathetic UA fans, Wilson is set to make one last stand — on two healthy legs.
“I’m ready,” Wilson said Wednesday, three days before his final appearance at Arizona Stadium. Arizona (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12) hosts Oregon State (1-8, 0-6) on Saturday night. Eighteen seniors will be honored before the game.
Wilson speaks without a hint of bitterness or regret about his career. He chooses not to dwell on what might have been.
Asked to sum up his career, Wilson said: “I wouldn’t say completely satisfied. But I wouldn’t say a disappointment. I’ve had some amazing experiences here. I’ve played in some amazing games. I have had back luck with the injuries. It happens. It’s football. All you can do is bounce back, keep going, push forward.
“I never gave up at any point. I never felt like I needed to quit. I never felt like I needed to medically retire. This is what I do. This is what I love. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid. I’m going to finish it out, ride it out. I’m too close to the next level to call it quits now.”
Wilson plans to pursue an NFL career once this season is over. If that doesn’t work out, he’ll probably go into law enforcement, following the lead of his father, George, a police officer in Fresno, California.
Nick Wilson remembered traveling from Fresno to visit the UA campus. The Lowell-Stevens Football Facility was still under construction. He sat in an office inside McKale Center wondering if this was the place for him. Running backs coach Calvin Magee knew he wanted Wilson.
“Of all the kids I watched, he was the one that was closest to Ka’Deem in his running style,” Magee said. “Running hard, very physical. And he had speed. He had all the things that you want.”
It came to fruition the very first year. The transition was seamless. Arizona had its next star running back. If he could have replicated his freshman season, Wilson would have threatened Carey’s school rushing record within three years.
It didn’t work out that way. Although frustrated at times — particularly when he hurt his knee at the end of a 39-yard run against USC last season — Wilson rarely let the injures get him down. His attitude has been exemplary, Magee said.
“The best part of Nick is, when he’s not in, he’s still kind of helping the young guys,” Magee said. “I watch him every day talking to Nathan (freshman tailback Nathan Tilford) and teaching Nathan. He’s positive out there all the time. Even when he knows he can’t play, he’s still into the game.”
Rehabbing injuries is no fun. Everyone wants to play. Magee and others encouraged Wilson to push through it. It wasn’t always easy.
“How do you get up and go to work every morning? You’ve gotta get through it,” Wilson said. “It’s not the prettiest part of the job. At the same time, it’s something that has to be done.”
Wilson’s latest injury came a week after his best game of the season — a 22-carry, 135-yard, two-touchdown performance against UCLA. Wilson sprained his ankle in the first half against Cal and didn’t return. He sat out the following week against Washington State and played only minimally last week against USC, carrying two times for 7 yards.
Deemed “full go” by UA coach Rich Rodriguez, Wilson should be a major part of the game plan against Oregon State. The last time the Beavers visited Tucson, Wilson suffered the first of the maladies that have plagued him since.
But this final season will have a satisfying ending. Unlike last year’s seniors, Wilson and his classmates will have a chance to play in and win a bowl game.
“It’s great to know that’s how your senior year’s going to end,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the team.”
How far has Tate come in the past year? Wilson said he had to help Tate call plays against USC last season. Tate was a 17-year-old freshman at the time, making his first career start because of injuries to Brandon Dawkins and Anu Solomon.
“Khalil was out there lost, clueless. Didn’t know what was going on,” Wilson said. “I’m over here trying to call the plays for him, trying to help him. Not a lot of people know that. Seeing Khalil succeed from that to what he is now, it’s satisfying as hell.”
Tate emerged as Arizona’s starter last month and led the Wildcats to four straight victories. Last week he became the first quarterback to surpass 1,000 rushing yards in a season in Pac-12 history.
But Tate struggled at times in his second career outing against the Trojans last week, including an interception on a pass he forced downfield. What would Rodriguez like to see from Tate this Saturday?
“Really just running the offense,” Rodriguez said. “Don’t force the issue. Don’t try to do too much, too soon. He has big-play ability, of course, throwing and running. But he’s gotta let the game come to him.”
- Arizona quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Rod Smith is one of 56 nominees for the Broyles Award, given to the nation’s top assistant coach. Smith has been instrumental in Tate’s growth.
- Wide receiver Shun Brown worked on the side with a yellow jersey and a boot on his right foot. Brown is Arizona’s leading receiver and top punt returner. Expect Tony Ellison to have an expanded role if Brown is unable to play against Oregon State.
- The Wildcats practiced at Arizona Stadium. The grass at Kindall/Sancet was still wet from Tuesday night’s rain. Rodriguez said players were slipping during Tuesday’s morning workout.