Fairly or unfairly, Arizona running back Nick Wilson has gained a reputation as someone who’s something less than durable in his first two seasons as a Wildcat.
Wilson missed one game and part of another as a freshman in 2014-15. He basically was a non-factor for the second half of last year.
Wilson’s health obviously is a huge factor for Arizona this season, but not necessarily in the way you might think. The Wildcats have at least two viable tailbacks in Wilson and sophomore Orlando Bradford, and it would behoove them to utilize both. If Wilson weren’t available to carry half – or slightly more than half – of the load, that construct would fall apart.
How Rich Rodriguez and his staff will divvy up the carries remains to be seen, but my sense is that it will be a timeshare of some sort. Running backs coach Calvin Magee told me he feels just as comfortable with Bradford as Wilson, adding: “It’s a good feeling.”
That doesn’t automatically mean the staff will handle the situation as it should. A look back at Wilson’s first two years reveals inconsistent usage – although there seemed to be a conscious effort to manage Wilson’s workload last season.
As a freshman, Wilson handled 64.1 percent of the carries by running backs for Arizona – a perfectly reasonable amount for a No. 1 back. But a deeper dive shows signs of overuse.
Wilson carried the ball at least 19 times in seven games as a freshman, including five of the final six contests. In those games, he had 84.8 percent of the carries by running backs. That’s way too much.
The games include the Fiesta Bowl, during which Wilson suffered a concussion and missed the second half. I included only the first half in the preceding calculation.
That first half was one of three instances in which Wilson was the lone running back to carry the ball. (The Washington and Arizona State games were the others.) In the Nevada game, Jared Baker got one attempt.
I don’t know exactly what precipitated it, but things changed last season. Wilson was healthy for about the first 5½ games. In every game but one, his backup or a combination of runners totaled between nine and 11 carries. (We’re including only the first half of the Oregon State game; Wilson missed the second half.)
The one time the figure was less than that was the Stanford game, and that was attributable to game flow. Overall, in the 5½ games, Wilson handled 68.8 percent of the RB carries – in line with his overall 2014 workload (and slightly less than that of LSU’s Leonard Fournette, who was at 70.9 percent).
Despite taking a lower percentage of the carries, Wilson still broke down. Perhaps that was a residual effect of being overworked over the second half of his freshman year. Perhaps it was just bad luck. Or perhaps the concerns about Wilson’s durability are valid.
Whatever the case, it wouldn’t surprise me if the percentage declined even further this season. The coaches really do like and trust Bradford, who impressed not only with his running but his blocking.
That isn’t typically an area in which freshman are proficient. Yet Magee said of Bradford: “That was Orlando’s strength coming in. He blocked better than any freshman I’ve been around.”
Bradford ran the ball with tremendous heart and determination at the end of the New Mexico Bowl, which Wilson missed. Assuming both backs are healthy and available, the coaching staff ought to utilize both – if not 50/50, then something close to it. It’s in the best interest of all parties involved.