Standing next to Nathan Tilford, it’s easy to forget he’s just a freshman. UA coach Rich Rodriguez is quick to point that fact out, however, noting that it was only a year ago that the Wildcats’ running back was a senior in high school.
Still, Tilford just looks different for a first-year player. He’s 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighs 207 pounds. He’s muscular, even powerful.
“I think he’s probably been that size since he was in eighth grade,” Rodriguez said, laughing. “I know he’s been playing varsity football for a long time, but he is advanced physically.”
Tilford looks different in another way, too. The former four-star recruit is sporting a shaved head in training camp, a change from the bright red and yellow highlights he wore during a stellar career at Ontario, California’s Colony High School. He graduated in 3ƒ years, enrolling at the UA in time to start spring drills, and has been a full participant in the Wildcats’ summer program.
His early thoughts on Tucson?
“It’s too hot. I didn’t think it was going to be this hot,” Tilford said. “I’m coming out in Arizona and it’s 110, hitting 113 — it’s bad. But I’m getting used to it.”
He is expected to add another wrinkle to Arizona’s backfield featuring J.J. Taylor and Nick Wilson. Taylor is a speedy, elusive back, while Wilson is the more powerful runner. Tilford is closer to Wilson in style, with one exception. Tilford is 4 inches taller, and also towers over the 5-foot-6-inch Taylor.
During Arizona’s open practice on Saturday, Tilford burst through the middle of the defense and scored, untouched. He also caught the ball out of the backfield, something Arizona hasn’t utilized often from running backs under Rodriguez.
Both Tilford and freshman running back Gary Brightwell are expected to see time in the slot. Brightwell, listed at 6-1 and 196 pounds, has been primarily practicing in the slot in camp and Rodriguez hinted he could receive some playing time there this season, too.
“I’m very comfortable” catching the ball, Tilford said. “It doesn’t bother me at all; it’s one of my favorite things to do other than running downhill.”
Rodriguez compared Tilford’s advanced maturity and football IQ to that of Taylor, but football-wise said “he’s probably closer to Nick.”
“He’s a little different, a little taller, rangier type of guy,” Rodriguez said. “I haven’t had a lot (of running backs) at that size, or at least that height.”
Tilford is just one of a horde of freshmen expected to contribute early for the Wildcats, and he was helped by his early enrollment during spring drills, which Tilford said “made a big difference” in terms of understanding the offense. Rodriguez called Tilford’s early enrollment a “huge advantage.”
Tilford was initially supposed to live with former UA quarterback commit Braxton Burmeister in school dorms during the spring, but Burmeister flipped to Oregon just before he was set to enroll at Arizona.
Burmeister wasn’t the only Arizona commit to change his mind, either, as the Wildcats dealt with a wave of decommitments in its 2017 class.
Tilford received a scholarship offer from USC when he was in eighth grade, and could have played pretty much anywhere. The Trojans even made a late push close to National Signing Day. But Tilford committed to Arizona in April of 2016, and stuck to it.
Now he’s living alone in an off-campus apartment, and he’s happy to be a Wildcat.
“What made me do it, it felt like home to me. It was just home. That was about it,” Tilford said. “When I first showed up, I didn’t know what to think of it but I just thought this was home, so this is where I wanted to be at.
“My time at Arizona has been pretty great.”
• Arizona’s practice Thursday night started late due to lightning and heavy rain, and only lasted for about an hour. The Wildcats will practice in the morning on Friday and Saturday in full pads.
• New UA president Robert C. Robbins spoke to the team before practice started. Rodriguez called it a “nice talk.”
• Arizona’s punt returners practiced by receiving punts while Rodriguez squirted a water gun. Rodriguez said that he is “pretty excited” about the punt return unit, which on Thursday included receivers Tony Ellison, Shun Brown, Cam Denson, Tyrell Johnson and freshman cornerback Tony Wallace.
• Freshman linebacker Tony Fields II, who enrolled in the spring at Arizona, is an early favorite for playing time, if not a starting job. Fields arrived at Arizona weighing 194 pounds and said that he’s already bulked up to 227.
• Arizona almost pulled safety Jarrius Wallace’s redshirt last season. Expect the Villa, Louisiana, native to contribute this season.
“He’s doing really well this camp,” assistant coach Jahmile Addae said. “He’s getting it. There’s other guys doing well, but he’s one that I’m pleased with.”