Editor’s note: The Star’s Zack Rosenblatt is counting down the 50 best athletes on the University of Arizona campus right now, with help from athletes, coaches and those close to the program.
No. 25: J.J. Taylor
The details: Taylor is a diminutive running back from Corona, California, entering his second season with the Wildcats. Even though he played in four games last season as a true freshman — before missing the final eight with a broken ankle — Taylor still qualified for a redshirt and so will enter next season as a redshirt freshman.
Taylor came to Arizona after a stellar prep career at Centennial High School, rushing for nearly 4,000 yards and 68 touchdowns his last two seasons. Despite those video-game numbers, Taylor was still somewhat unheralded as a recruit because of his size — he’s currently listed as 5-foot-6 and 170 pounds. His only Power Five conference offers out of high school were from Arizona and Washington State, with others coming from Nevada, Ohio, Montana State, Sacramento State and Weber State.
“When I met him in person, I said, ‘Boy, he’s kind of tiny,’” Arizona co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee said last season. “But when I watched him practice, I said, ‘I don’t care.’”
The numbers: In four games before going down with an injury, Taylor rushed for 261 yards and two touchdowns on 38 carries, even though he barely played in Arizona’s first game of the season against BYU. Taylor was poised for a breakout freshman season before the injury, which occurred during the Wildcats’ fourth game against Washington.
“More than anything, you just feel bad for him,” UA coach Rich Rodriguez said after the game. “He will be back at 100 percent and be even better. But right now it stings.”
The value: This season, on paper the Wildcats have perhaps the most top-to-bottom talented group of running backs since Rodriguez started his UA tenure in 2012. It largely depends on health, though. Taylor missed most of his freshman season and is small for a running back, Nick Wilson hasn’t been able to remain healthy since a stellar freshman season in 2014 and true freshman Nathan Tilford hasn’t experienced the physicality of college football yet. Regardless, if Taylor can stay healthy, there’s a good chance he’ll be Arizona’s workhorse in the backfield and has the potential to put up numbers at the position the Wildcats haven’t had in a few years. Even at a self-described 80 percent health, Taylor showed flashes of improvement during spring drills.
“The sky’s the limit,” UA quarterback Brandon Dawkins said in the spring. “If that’s 80 percent, it’s really impressive.”
Why Taylor? Even in limited time, Taylor has flashed the ability to be a game-changing talent for Arizona’s offense. With continued improvement, and health, Taylor has star-level potential. Rodriguez is never one to rave much about individual players, but few players at Arizona make him light up quite like when he talks about Taylor. Rodridugez has compared him to former West Virginia standout Noel Devine and frequently lauds his football IQ.
“He has probably learned as quickly as any true freshman I’ve ever had,” Rodriguez said last season, “and I’ve had some really good ones.”
Proof he’s good: The best proof came in a two-game stretch where Taylor rushed for a combined 267 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns, particularly in Arizona’s dominant win over Hawaii in Week 3. After that win, Taylor was the talk of Tucson after a Madden-esque performance that saw Taylor juking, spinning, twisting and turning away from defenders on his way to 168 rushing yards, including one run that went for 61 yards. He was flashing the same talent a week later against the Huskies — an eventual College Football Playoff team — before he injured his ankle.
“It was disappointing while the game was going on,” Taylor said of the injury. “But afterwards, after talking to my parents and talking to other people, they gave me words of wisdom. Everything happens for a reason.”
What Taylor can accomplish: Of course, the key for Taylor will be staying healthy. With Arizona’s depth at running back, the Wildcats won’t need to give Taylor a Ka’Deem Carey-esque workload, which should help. But with a full season, Taylor has real potential to be amongst the Pac-12’s leaders in rushing yards and would seem to be a dark-horse candidate for an All-Conference selection and Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year awards … if he stays healthy.
“I don’t like to think that there’s anything I can’t do,” Taylor said in the spring.
Coachspeak: “Noel probably had one of the most unbelievable (high school) highlight tapes you’d ever see. He would have three or four guys in a 2-yard box area, and none of them could even touch him. He was that quick and that explosive. J.J. has a lot of (those) same qualities. Noel was probably a little faster, but J.J. is so light on his feet. He’s like a butterfly.” — Rodriguez comparing Taylor to Devine
He said it: “I wouldn’t be able to tell you (if they do that) because that’s not my focus. I come out what’s planned for me to do and what the coaches want me to do. That’s not anything I think about at all. It’s just about winning the next game and coming out for practice, practicing as hard as I can, making my teammates work better and making them better players.” — Taylor, on people doubting him because of his height.