In the past two NFL draft cycles, the Arizona Wildcats have lost significant contributors to their ground game.
In 2020, J.J. Taylor joined the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. He appeared in six games for them last season, rushing for 110 yards. He gained 3,263 yards during his four-year UA career.
This year, Gary Brightwell joined the New York Giants as a sixth-round pick. Brightwell rushed for 1,302 yards over three seasons at Arizona and was the Wildcats’ leading rusher in 2020.
Despite those departures, the UA appears to be as strong as ever at the running back position. Arizona’s running back corps is deep and talented, earning the No. 1 spot in the Star’s rankings.
Our eight-part, position-by-position preview continues with an in-depth look at that group.
Position rank: First (out of eight)
Biggest camp question: Could a true freshman crash the party and enter the running back rotation?
Jedd Fisch and his staff fortified the RB room by landing veteran Drake Anderson via the NCAA transfer portal. Anderson rushed for 926 yards in three seasons at Northwestern.
Anderson looked the part during spring practice, displaying quick feet and sharp cutting skills. But he wasn’t the most impressive back in spring camp.
That distinction belonged to Stevie Rocker Jr., who participated in spring ball as an early-enrolling 17-year-old out of Canyon del Oro High School.
Rocker made big plays. He ran inside with authority. Observers who had seen him play in high school — where he was slowed by injuries — said he looked better in college than he ever did in the prep ranks.
“Outstanding,” running backs coach Scottie Graham said in April. “You see the smile on my face right now? I’ve got a young man that’s just ... woo! If God allows, Stevie’s gonna be really special.”
In retrospect, Graham said, Rocker was “underrecruited.” He was a consensus three-star prospect who had three other known offers, from BYU, Cal and Nevada. Graham said Arizona was “lucky” that Rocker decided to stay home, especially amid a coaching change.
Rocker still has a long way to go to crack the rotation. It’s one thing to excel in spring practice, where tackling isn’t a daily activity; it’s another to do it in real games. He also must prove he can handle pass protection against defenses other than Arizona’s. But he’s certainly off to an encouraging start.
The term “rotation” is critical here, because it’s much more likely than not that Arizona will utilize a committee approach. The coaching staff likes what it has in Anderson, Rocker, veteran Michael Wiley and youngster Jalen John. All could see significant snaps at a position that’s conducive to platooning and susceptible to attrition.
Wiley served as Brightwell’s primary backup last season and rushed for 222 yards in five games — averaging a robust 7.2 yards per carry. He missed much of spring practice because of injury.
John made a cameo as a freshman last year, totaling seven touches for 54 yards. He ran with similar gusto during spring camp before missing the final portion because of a shoulder injury. John is a bigger back (listed at 5-11, 216) and brings a different style. The other three backs we’ve mentioned are listed at 202 pounds or under.
“Jalen John is powerful,” Graham said. “He’s one of those people ... they’re patting you, but it feels like they’re hitting you.
“He’s a young man, and he really doesn’t even know his own strength right now. When he realizes that ‘I want to hurt people,’ the defense is going to have some problems.”
Anderson, Wiley, Rocker and John aren’t the only backs who conceivably could be in the mix.
Veteran Bam Smith, who opted out last season, began to re-emerge late in spring. He has 301 career rushing yards, averaging 5.3 yards per attempt. Incoming freshman James Bohls was named Offensive Player of the Year in Orange County, California, this past season. And walk-on Jashon Butler, a converted wide receiver, looked explosive almost every time he touched the ball in spring.
Remember: Hardly anyone saw Rocker coming, either.