J.J. Taylor is a more complete running back in his second season as an Arizona Wildcat.
Last year Taylor relied mostly on his instincts, according to running backs coach Calvin Magee. This year?
“He understands everything,” Magee said Tuesday. “Now he has the instincts and the knowledge of the offense, so that’s really helped him.”
Knowledge is power. Taylor knows where he’s supposed to be and whom he’s supposed to block.
But man, those instincts …
No Wildcat makes more “No! No! … Yes! Yes!” plays than Taylor. He sees openings others can’t see. His vision, lateral movement, shiftiness and quickness regularly enable him to make something out of nothing.
“Whenever you have J.J. in the game ... you never know what’s going to happen with him,” said center Nathan Eldridge.
No play exemplified that better than Taylor’s 27-yard run in the second quarter against Houston on Saturday. The redshirt freshman took a pitch to the left.
The Cougars read the play and had him surrounded. Taylor came to a complete stop and started working his back to the right. He eluded at least three defenders, picked up a block from receiver Shawn Poindexter and dashed down the right sideline.
“For most people you’re like, ‘What is he doing?’ For J.J., he seems to get out of a lot of tough situations,” said UA coach Rich Rodriguez, whose team visits UTEP on Friday. “He’s got better vision than any of us do.”
“J.J.’s just making a play,” Magee said. “I saw what he saw.”
Bear in mind, though: Magee watches the game from a booth high above the field. He can see all 22 players. Taylor, at 5 feet 6 inches, is as low to the ground as can be.
Taylor’s size and ability to run with a low pad level make him hard to hit. Despite often having to dodge defenders in the backfield, he rushed for a team-high 87 yards on 17 carries in Arizona’s 19-16 loss to Houston.
It was his best performance since the Washington game last year, when he had 97 yards through three quarters before suffering a season-ending broken ankle.
Taylor carried 19 times in that game, 18 the week before against Hawaii. Magee said Taylor could handle 20-25 rushes “if that’s the mood” in a given game. But that shouldn’t be necessary given Arizona’s depth at running back. Taylor carried more of the load vs. Houston because Nick Wilson (ankle) was out of the lineup.
Taylor said he’s “comfortable” with however many touches the coaches give him. He’s just happy to be back after missing most of what had the makings of a prolific first season.
“It feels good to be fully healthy,” Taylor said. “But I’ve gotta stay in the weight room and stay strong and healthy – you know, finish off the season.”
Dawkins takes blame
Quarterback Brandon Dawkins offered no excuses for missing a handful of passes that might have been the difference in Saturday’s game.
“I just felt like I let my guys down, let my team down,” Dawkins said. “Whenever there’s a play to be made and I don’t make a play, I always feel like it’s on me.”
The most glaring misfire happened in the third quarter, when Dawkins overthrew an open Tony Ellison in the end zone on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Dawkins had taken a hard hit from Houston linebacker Matthew Adams on the previous play. Dawkins’ hand and leg were smarting.
“It’s not an excuse,” he said. “I got banged up pretty good. I could have subbed out. I could have done a lot of things.
“But the competitor in me wants to be out there and compete and win with my guys. I tried to battle through but ended up not being able to connect on that play.”
Dawkins said he felt “good” Tuesday and that none of the injuries was serious. He is expected to start at UTEP.
Besides the quarterback situation, no development has frustrated UA fans more than freshman tailback Nathan Tilford’s lack of playing time.
Tilford, Arizona’s highest-rated recruit, played in the fourth quarter of the NAU game, when the Wildcats had a 55-24 lead. He did not get any backfield snaps against Houston, even though Wilson was out.
Magee provided three reasons for not utilizing Tilford more: “Nick Wilson, J.J. Taylor and Zach Green.” Those are the three backs listed on the depth chart. All have more experience than Tilford.
But Tilford enrolled in spring, and Magee said he’d have “no problem” putting Tilford into a game at any juncture.
“The plan is to play him more,” Magee said. “It’s early.”
Tilford hasn’t complained about his role, according to Magee.
“Not that kinda kid,” Magee said. “He’s taking it all in. He’s being a sponge. He’s trying to learn as much as he can so when he’s in there he’s ready to go.”
- Magee on whether Wilson will be back vs. UTEP: “He’s doing OK. I’m hoping he is. Last week it was a game-time-type thing.”
- Tight end Trevor Wood did not have a boot on his injured left ankle as he walked from the practice field to the locker room. He missed the Houston game after getting hurt in the second half vs. NAU.