Key returnees: Gary Brightwell (6-1, 206, JR), Darrius Smith (5-9, 175, RS FR), J.J. Taylor (5-6, 184, RS JR), Nathan Tilford (6-2, 202, RS SO)
Key newcomers: Michael Wiley (6-0, 190, FR)
The big question: What will it take for Tilford to crack the rotation?
Arizona has gotten incredible production from its 2017 recruiting class. Linebackers Tony Fields II and Colin Schooler are multiyear starters and leaders of the defense. JB Brown and Jalen Harris are emerging pass-rush threats. Scottie Young Jr. and Troy Young should be key members of the secondary. Kicker Lucas Havrisik has an NFL leg.
It’s easy to forget that the highest-rated member of that class was Tilford.
The four-star recruit from Colony High School in Ontario, California, showed promise as a freshman. He appeared in 10 games, mostly on special teams, and gained 121 yards on 13 carries. He scored two touchdowns and had a 65-yard run.
Arizona then changed coaching staffs, and Tilford became a non-factor.
Tilford’s second season consisted of one game and one carry (for 1 yard). He failed to make a positive impression on new running backs coach Clarence McKinney, who’s a stickler for all-around play — running, receiving and blocking. As he should be.
From what we’ve seen of Tilford in practice, there’s little doubt he can run the ball. He also has shown promise as a receiver. The blocking part is harder to gauge in those settings. He obviously didn’t show enough to McKinney to earn a role.
Tilford’s best hope might be that McKinney is now the head coach at Texas Southern. Tilford gets a second chance to make a first impression.
New RB coach DeMarco Murray played under Kevin Sumlin at Oklahoma, so their criteria for quality tailback play undoubtedly overlaps. But Murray isn’t McKinney. Murray and Tilford have no history.
So this spring affords Tilford an opportunity to wow his new position coach — to prove he can be just as effective as Taylor and Brightwell (another productive member of the ’17 class).
It’s going to take a stellar spring for Tilford to make a move. Running back is probably Arizona’s strongest position.
Taylor is entrenched as the starter after rushing for 1,434 yards and earning third-team All-America honors as an all-purpose back. Brightwell is an explosive slasher (5.8 yards per carry) who also has earned the trust of Sumlin and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Smith flashed big-time feel, vision, patience and change-of-direction during a freshman campaign truncated by injury.
Those are the top three entering spring camp. It’s unrealistic to think Tilford can surpass all of them. Frankly, he’s a long shot to crack the top two. But there’s enough work available for three backs to be in the mix. Tilford possesses the ability to at least crack the rotation.
If anyone can draw it out of him, it might be Murray. Murray’s listed playing dimensions were 6-1, 220. Tilford is listed at 6-2, 202. Murray knows what a bigger back needs to do to run — and block — with leverage and power
If he’s unable to move up the depth chart, Tilford conceivably could be a candidate to transfer. The upside of his minimal participation last year is that it counts as a redshirt season under the new NCAA rules. So even if he had to sit out 2019, he’d have two more years of eligibility.
One more thought on Tilford: If running back doesn’t work out, it might make sense to give him a look on the other side of the ball. Some recruiting sites listed Tilford as an “athlete” coming out of high school with the potential to play offense or defense. Arizona actually has a greater need at linebacker, where depth is minimal.
This idea isn’t based on insider information. It’s just a logical alternative for a talented player who hasn’t found his niche yet.