Northern Arizona University vs. University of Arizona college football

Then-freshman Nathan Tilford broke off a big run vs. NAU in the 2017 opener but didn't see much action at running back for Arizona the rest of the way.

Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Spring football for the Arizona Wildcats is starting a little later than it has in recent years, but it’s almost here. With Kevin Sumlin’s first full practice as UA coach scheduled for March 19, we will examine the state of his team over the next several weekdays. The series continues in the offensive backfield.


Who’s here: J.J. Taylor (5-6, 180, RS SO), Nathan Tilford (6-2, 206, SO), Gary Brightwell (6-1, 196, SO), Branden Leon (5-8, 201, RS JR)

Who’s coming: Darrius Smith (5-9, 170, FR)

The big question: Are Tilford and Brightwell ready to assume larger roles?

Arizona’s freshman defenders got all the playing time and accolades last season. The Wildcats needed them, and they stepped up.

Tilford and Brightwell were just as impressive during preseason practices. But the previous regime elected to go with veterans in the backfield, relegating Tilford and Brightwell to minor roles.

Tilford appeared in 10 games, mostly on special teams, and carried the ball 13 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. One of those rushes went for 65 yards.

Brightwell appeared in all 13 games but never touched the ball. He moved from running back to slot receiver in training camp, a move that seemed to present a clearer path to playing time. But pass-catching opportunities never materialized.

It’s not entirely clear what the new staff has in store for Brightwell; Sumlin and his crew probably aren’t sure themselves. That’s what spring practice is for.

But Brightwell is listed on the roster as a running back, and Arizona has bigger cleats to fill there than at receiver, where almost everyone is back. The Wildcats lost two major cogs from their backfield in Nick Wilson and Zach Green, who combined for 926 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

It’s impossible to say how the new regime will deploy its backs, but it’s pretty safe to say it won’t be a one-man show. You won’t find a bigger fan of Taylor than yours truly, but at 5-6, 180, he just isn’t cut out for a 20-carry-a-game load. Also, based on everything we’ve seen and heard about Tilford and Brightwell, the time has come to get them on the field and see what they can do.

Although Brightwell was the one who actually moved to receiver, Tilford displayed good hands and route-running ability during the few practices open to the media. He also showed the ability to contort and maneuver his 6-2, 206-pound frame in tight spaces while running inside. On paper, Tilford is the perfect complement to the nifty, shifty Taylor.

Brightwell could be the changeup that makes Arizona’s repertoire complete. Teammates have raved about his speed, and he obviously has the ability to split out wide.

Whether the new staff can figure out ways to get Brightwell and the other backs involved in the passing game is another question for another day. Rich Rodriguez and his assistants did not succeed in that regard.

Taylor led the running backs with 12 receptions, but those catches netted only 49 yards. Wilson caught just one ball (and infamously dropped another, which he lost in the lights). And … that was it.

The previous year was even worse. Even if you include part-time back Tyrell Johnson, who was mostly a slot receiver, UA running backs combined for just 11 catches.

Not utilizing Taylor, Tilford and Brightwell in the pass game would be a waste of their skills. Many Arizona fans viewed the way Tilford - the Wildcats' top-rated recruit - and Brightwell were used a year ago the same way.

I urged patience then. Now their time is here. The new staff will use spring to assess the roster, as much as anything, so you can be sure that Tilford and Brightwell – who don’t have nearly as much film as Taylor – will get plenty of touches.

Don’t be surprised if (1) they excel and (2) running back is viewed as a position of strength by the end of spring. Tilford and Brightwell always have had the talent. All they needed was an opportunity, and they’re about to get one.