Running back by committee.
If you play fantasy football, those four words, uttered in concert, are met with dread and despair. In real football, even as the sport moves away from workhorse backs, they still carry a negative connotation.
Not so for the 2019 Arizona Wildcats.
“A lot of times when you say that, you really don’t have anybody,” UA coach Kevin Sumlin said. “But we do. We’ve got five guys that can play.”
Just three games into the season, five tailbacks have made a positive impact for Arizona. Considering that only one can touch the ball on a given play — and only two, at most, are on the field at the same time — that’s something.
Despite those challenging logistics and the potential for clashing egos, the Wildcats have found a way to make it work. Where others might see excess, Sumlin and his staff view their tailback depth as an asset. It already has helped them win a ballgame.
Starter J.J. Taylor “got nicked up” early in the second quarter of last week’s game against Texas Tech, Sumlin said. Taylor appeared to injure his lower right leg. He played only a handful of snaps the rest of the way.
Taylor was named a third-team All-American last season as an all-purpose player. Arizona obviously would rather have him than not. But the coaches didn’t feel compelled to force a less-than-100% Taylor onto the field because they felt so good about the alternatives.
The Wildcats turned to junior Gary Brightwell and redshirt freshman Bam Smith in a tight game they had to win. The pair delivered. Brightwell carried the ball a career-high 21 times for 85 yards and two touchdowns. Smith had a career-best 109 scrimmage yards.
Arizona won 28-14.
“That’s why we have the guys that we have,” said Sumlin, whose team hosts UCLA next Saturday after having this past week off. “That’s where depth comes in.”
‘It goes through us’
Sumlin often gets asked about the running backs. Arizona has so many, it’s hard for him to mention all of them without forgetting somebody.
The Wildcats have five scholarship tailbacks: Taylor, Brightwell, Smith, redshirt sophomore Nathan Tilford and freshman Michael Wiley. All bring something a little different to the running back room.
Taylor is smart, agile and more powerful than his 5-foot-6-inch, 185-pound frame would suggest. Brightwell is a classic one-cut-and-go runner with plus size (6-1, 201) and surprising speed. Smith is quick, nifty and always seems to fall forward. Tilford is big (6-2, 207) and sturdy between the tackles. Wiley is a home run hitter who already has shown he can line up in the slot and catch passes downfield.
“They can all catch,” Sumlin said. “They can make people miss. That’s going to help us as we go through the season.”
Sumlin added that the four backs behind Taylor “just aren’t guys that go in there and give J.J. a rest.” They aren’t merely replacement-level players. The coaches expect them to produce, and they have.
Brightwell leads the group with 226 rushing yards and three touchdowns. He’s averaging a team-best 8.7 yards per carry. His 94-yard touchdown run against NAU on Sept. 7 tied for the second longest in school history.
Taylor has 208 yards and two scores. He’s averaging 5.9 yards on a team-high 35 rushes.
Smith has 147 rushing yards and two touchdowns, including one as a receiver. He’s averaging a robust 8.6 yards per carry. His 46-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass vs. Texas Tech ignited the offense in the first half.
Tilford has 41 yards and one touchdown. He’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry and has taken advantage of opportunities not afforded to him last year, when he redshirted.
Wiley has 42 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards. He caught three passes for 50 yards in his collegiate debut at Hawaii.
With quarterback Khalil Tate running again — he has a team-high 238 yards — Arizona found itself in a familiar position entering this weekend: The Wildcats paced the Pac-12 in rushing. Arizona has led the league the past three seasons.
“It goes through us,” Tilford said. “Every time we get the rock in our hands, we need to get the yards we need or pick up some blitzes, keep the quarterback safe. We need to do everything we can.”
Sharing ball, glory
Notice that Tilford repeatedly said “we.” Although every running back who ever lived wants the ball, the UA backs swear there’s no envy in their room. When they’re not on the field, they root for whoever is.
“We’re all family. We’re all brothers, man. None of that gets to us,” Tilford said. “Whoever’s in at the moment, we’re all cheering for that person. It doesn’t matter who’s in.”
Taylor insists that a wide shot of Brightwell’s 94-yard touchdown run would reveal that the other backs were running to the north end zone right along with him. It’s impossible to tell from TV replays, because Brightwell sprinted up the opposite sideline.
“It’s a team game,” Taylor said. “We all care about winning. We all want to (be) happy after the game, knowing that we won.”
Taylor sets the tone in that regard – even though, as the team’s leading returning rusher with NFL aspirations, he stands to lose the most by sharing the load. Taylor just isn’t that kind of guy. He genuinely enjoys when the spotlight shines on his teammates.
“Being able to live in other people’s success is always a good feeling,” the redshirt junior said.
Thus far, Sumlin and first-year position coach DeMarco Murray have come up with ways to make every running back feel as if he’s involved. The Wildcats have used more two-back sets this year than last to get their best players on the field and take some pressure off a relatively inexperienced receiving corps. Brightwell has shared kickoff-return duties with Taylor.
“There’s not enough footballs back there for those guys,” Sumlin said. “You try to keep them happy. We’re trying to get J.J. over 100 yards. And we’re trying to get all five of those guys on the field.”
It’s a difficult task — too much for one coach to tackle. Sumlin might want to consider forming a committee.