They are the biggest names — and numbers — on the marquee.
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate vs. USC quarterback Sam Darnold. No. 14 vs. No. 14. A made-for-TV matchup on ESPN.
But it’s entirely possible that another No. 14 will have just as big an impact on the game.
That’s the number worn by Wildcats freshman Kylan Wilborn, whose performance thus far has lived up to the position he plays: “Stud.”
The defensive end/linebacker leads No. 22 Arizona (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) with six sacks, eight total tackles for losses and four forced fumbles. No other freshman at a Power Five school has as many sacks as Wilborn.
“He’s going to be a freshman All-American,” UA senior safety Dane Cruikshank said. “He has a motor. He brings it every day in practice.”
Wilborn brings it every week. He has recorded a sack, a tackle for loss or a forced fumble in six of the Wildcats’ eight games. His production as a freshman has far exceeded expectations.
Rivals’ Mike Farrell recently listed Wilborn among his top 15 freshmen in the nation. Farrell’s comments about Wilborn were telling.
“We didn’t see this one coming,” Farrell wrote. “We had Wilborn as a low three-star who could play a hybrid role in college, but we didn’t see the natural athleticism and quick-twitch ability we are seeing on Saturdays now.”
It’s not uncommon for high school players to be misevaluated; to call recruiting an inexact science does a disservice to the terms “inexact” and “science.” Wilborn has the most forced fumbles by a Wildcat since Scooby Wright — the all-time underestimated prospect — in 2014.
In Wilborn’s case, a handful of factors depressed his perceived value. One was that he didn’t participate in that many football camps, which serve as opportunities for recruits to boost their star ratings.
“He never cared about chasing stars,” Lamar Wilborn, Kylan’s father, said by phone this week.
Kylan also was active in track, which clogged his schedule. Wilborn was a three-time California state finalist in the shotput at Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks.
Wilborn not only played multiple sports but multiple positions on the football field. That prevented him from stockpiling the stats that might have garnered more attention. His only other offers came Hawaii and Idaho, a pair of Group of Five schools.
Yet Wilborn was ready to contribute “from the minute he showed up here this summer,” said Brian Knorr, who coaches Arizona’s edge rushers.
“The expectations were a little higher for some other guys,” Knorr said. “He stepped up, and it’s been full tilt ever since.
“He’s the most relentless practice (player). Preparation-wise, you wouldn’t think he’s a freshman. Physicality-wise, he does a nice job holding his own. We weren’t sure from a strength level that he’d be able to handle it.”
It’s hardest for linemen to play immediately because most simply aren’t developed enough to endure 12-plus weeks in the trenches. Although technically a hybrid player, the 6-2, 245-pound Wilborn plays out of a three-point stance and rushes the passer more often than not.
UA coach Rich Rodriguez has noted Wilborn’s “natural strength.” Wilborn attributes some of it to his shotput training. Lamar said his son has been that way since he was a youth playing defensive tackle.
“They literally had to start double-teaming him at 6 years old,” Lamar said.
He recalled the first time Kylan participated in a scrimmage with pads. The coach of the other team called a pass play.
“Kylan came around the edge, blindsided the quarterback and made him fumble,” Lamar said. “From that moment, we kinda knew he was something special.”
So perhaps, then, Wilborn’s immediate contributions shouldn’t come as a surprise. Impactful from the jump in Pop Warner; impactful from the jump at Arizona.
But skepticism lingered, and it was understandable. Colorado’s offensive line pushed Wilborn and his teammates around on Oct. 7, accumulating 300 rushing yards.
“I thought there were times their O-lineman, Jeremy Irwin, was just bigger and stronger than him,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth, who called that game. “But he was fighting his tail off. It was full-on ‘hard edge’ — like RichRod describes — every snap.
“Then I called the game against Cal, and watched the game against UCLA, and just remember thinking how physical he was. Then watching it again, I was just like, ‘This kid is going to be a star.’”
Cal and UCLA were the two camps Wilborn attended. The idea of doing what he’s doing now was born when he attended a UCLA-USC game as a youth. “It made me want to play college football so bad,” Wilborn said.
Wilborn didn’t receive offers from the Golden Bears or Bruins. He had a relatively quiet game at Cal before breaking out against UCLA. Wilborn registered four sacks — the most by a Wildcat since Joe Salave’a in 1997 — and forced a fumble.
Now he’s about to play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against the No. 17 Trojans (7-2, 5-1) with first place in the Pac-12 South at stake.
But just as Wilborn never chased stars and doesn’t care about stats — when informed he’d been credited after the fact with a sack and forced fumble against Washington State, Wilborn basically shrugged — he won’t get caught up in the enormity of the moment Saturday night.
“When it comes to the game, you’ve gotta shut all that out,” Wilborn said. “It’s just football at the end of the day. You’ve been playing it since you were little.”
That sounds like something Arizona’s other No. 14 might say. Lamar and Kylan have joked about the number he picked. Over the past month, Tate has become a national phenomenon.
When the players do the “Wildcat Walk” before home games, fans sometimes confuse the No. 14s. They compliment Wilborn for his amazing running and passing. He just goes along with it.
“I don’t want to shoot their dreams down,” Wilborn said.
He leaves that for opposing quarterbacks.