Arizona Wildcats vs. No. 19 Oregon Ducks

Arizona tailback J.J. Taylor ranked second in the nation in all-purpose yards per game last season.

The Star is counting down the 11 most valuable Wildcats on the Arizona football team entering the 2019 season. Here’s the latest installment.

No. 3: RB J.J. Taylor

Height/weight/year: 5-6, 184, redshirt junior

Key 2018 stats: 1,434 rushing yards, 5.6 yards/carry, 6 TDs; 16 catches, 133 yards, 8.3 yards/catch; 24.5-yard KOR avg., 1 TD

Comment: Sometimes a player carries so much value that it doesn’t matter how good the depth is behind him – he’d still be missed if lost for any substantial length of time.

Taylor is one of those players.

No position on the current UA roster is deeper than tailback. Arizona has at least three viable options at the position and maybe as many as five.

Could the Wildcats survive a long-term injury to Taylor? Probably. Top backup Gary Brightwell could start for a lot of Division I schools. Bam Smith looked terrific in limited duty as a freshman and appears poised for a bigger role. And former four-star recruit Nathan Tilford remains a tantalizing talent.

None, at least individually, offers the total package Taylor provides.

Just listen to what teammate Rhett Rodriguez had to say about Taylor in a recent interview. Rodriguez was asked to name a player who has stood out in offseason workouts.

“J.J. Taylor is just the epitome of a perfect leader, a perfect competitor,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve seen a lot of really good football players, and he might be the most athletically gifted. But he works on it.

“For our break in May, I asked him what he was doing. He said he was (going to be) gone for a couple days, then he was coming back and working out. He’s taken this offseason really seriously. He’s somehow getting better and faster, which I didn’t even think was possible.”

Taylor had an excellent season in 2018. His 1,434 rushing yards were the fourth most in a single season in UA history. He ranked second among all FBS players with 175.6 all-purpose yards per game.

But it wasn’t a perfect season. Taylor was charged with seven fumbles, five of which were lost. They seemed to come at the most inopportune moments – just beyond the goal line negating a would-be touchdown against UCLA; late in the fourth quarter of a come-from-ahead loss to Arizona State.

In typical Taylor fashion, though, he immediately went to work to fix the problem. New running backs coach DeMarco Murray has a simple mantra when it comes to his charges and their responsibilities: “Protect the ball, protect the quarterback.” Taylor took the former to heart throughout spring. The latter never has been a problem for Arizona’s best blitz-reading, pass-protecting back.

Taylor also is a skilled receiver – although still underutilized in that area – and a dangerous kickoff returner. Remember: He made third-team All-American last season as an all-purpose player.

Arizona added junior-college transfer Tayvian Cunningham – who returned six kickoffs for touchdowns in two seasons at Sacramento City College – in the offseason. He’ll undoubtedly get looks as a kickoff returner. With the Wildcats having emerged from spring without a clear successor to Shun Brown on punt returns, Taylor could get a look there. There’s little doubt he could handle it.

Although a man of few words off the field – not that there’s anything wrong with that – Taylor also ranks among Arizona’s top leaders. No one sets a better example in terms of attitude, effort, professionalism and work ethic. Maybe it’s Taylor’s way of compensating for his lack of height. Maybe it’s just the way he is.

Taylor will be a senior academically this season, and it isn’t inconceivable this will be his final year as a Wildcat. Assuming he has another productive campaign with around 300 touches, he wouldn’t stand to gain much from coming back in 2020. If anything, putting more mileage on his body could hurt his NFL stock.

So enjoy Taylor while he’s here, Wildcat fans. You might miss him more than you think when that’s no longer the case.

MOST VALUABLE WILDCATS OF 2019

Contact sports reporter Michael Lev at 573-4148 or mlev@tucson.com. On Twitter @michaeljlev 

Reporter

Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.