From the moment he arrived at Arizona last year, coaches marveled at tailback J.J. Taylor’s maturity. Never did it shine brighter than during his darkest moment.
In his second game as Arizona’s featured back – a second consecutive performance in which Taylor looked like a budding star — he suffered a season-ending broken ankle.
Was the freshman from Corona, California, upset about it? Of course. Just as his season was getting started, it quickly came to a painful conclusion.
But Taylor didn’t let it linger. He spoke to family members and other confidantes who assured him he could put a positive spin on his predicament.
Eight games remained in Arizona’s 2016 season. He would use that time to get a head start on 2017 in the weight room and playbook.
“It was disappointing while the game was going on,” Taylor said of that Sept. 24 game against Washington at Arizona Stadium.
“But afterwards, after talking to my parents and talking to other people, they gave me words of wisdom. … Everything happens for a reason.”
Although he’s being eased back into practice this spring, Taylor appears to have added muscle to his 5-foot-6, 170-pound frame. Although Taylor says he’s only about 80 percent of his usual self, running backs coach Calvin Magee says Taylor looks quicker than before his injury.
No time is a good time to break a bone, but the timing of Taylor’s injury was especially cruel. He had rushed for 168 yards the previous week against Hawaii, displaying moves straight out of “Madden.” He had 97 yards in about three quarters against Washington, which eventually reached the College Football Playoff.
“It was devastating,” Magee said. “J.J. was bringing energy and a different style coming out of the backfield. He was just starting to learn more. I think he would have gotten even better.”
He still has time. Arizona has every reason to believe Taylor will be a prominent part of the backfield next season, along with freshman Nathan Tilford, senior Zach Green and an also on-the-mend Nick Wilson.
As Taylor put it: “I don’t like to think that there’s anything I can’t do.”
Taylor isn’t doing as much on the field right now, but he’s doing more off it. Taylor is serving as a mentor to Tilford, another veteran move by a student-athlete who’s still in his first year of college.
“After practice, he’ll come to my room and ask me questions,” Taylor said. “I’ll instruct him, just like Nick or Zach would have done for me last year.”
New receivers coach
Arizona is set to name Theron Aych as its wide receivers coach, a move that should become official in the coming days.
Aych spent last season at UTEP, which Arizona is scheduled to visit Sept. 16. He spent the previous five seasons as the offensive coordinator at Angelo State in San Angelo, Texas.
In 2015, Aych’s final season at Angelo State, the Rams led Division II in total offense.
Aych’s résumé suggests he has ties in Texas, a state that has been relatively under-recruited under Rich Rodriguez.
Aych also has ties to the Pac-12, having served as a graduate assistant at Washington for two seasons (2003-04).
Aych replaces Tony Dews, who left Arizona last month to join the staff at West Virginia.
The addition of Aych leaves one unfilled on-field opening on the UA staff. Rodriguez said Friday that his plan is to hire a full-time special teams coach, and he expects that to be done within the next two weeks.
•Rodriguez said Tilford is among the players who have looked better in pads than shorts.
•Rodriguez said Taylor and Wilson took some “quality reps” Friday after being held back in previous practices. “I like where we’re at at tailback,” Rodriguez said.
•Asked about the team’s cornerback play last year, Rodriguez said: “Not very good. That’s putting it mildly.” He said the corners as a whole need to get bigger, stronger and more consistent.
Rodriguez conceded that last season’s regulars, Dane Cruikshank and Jace Whittaker, had little Division I experience. He expects that group to improve in 2017.
•Cornerback Sammy Morrison revealed that he suffered a partially torn ACL in spring last year and then tore a hamstring on the first day of training camp, forcing him to redshirt. Fellow corner Lorenzo Burns ended up redshirting after suffering a sprained MCL in Week 2 against Grambling State. Both players are healthy now.