“You never know in this culture what’s going to happen.”
The “culture” Arizona running backs coach Scottie Graham referred to is the current landscape of college football — college athletics for that matter — between the transfer portal and opportunities to turn pro. It’s an exhausting, but essential, dimension to college sports.
When the Wildcats ended their season with a win over Arizona State, returning the Territorial Cup back to Tucson for the first time in six years, the UA wasn’t in dire need of a running back — but it could’ve potentially lost veteran Michael Wiley and transfer DJ Williams to the NFL draft.
It was conceivable for someone like Tucson native and sophomore Stevie Rocker — who played in five games in 2021 but slid down the depth chart with the addition of Williams and true freshmen Jonah Coleman and Rayshon Luke last season — to put his name in the transfer portal.
Questions loomed, but Graham quickly received the answer he was hopeful for: Every scholarship running back would be returning for the 2023 season. Plus, the Wildcats added three-star Palmdale, California, back Brandon Johnson, who enrolled early and is participating in spring ball.
“I anticipated they were all going to come back,” Graham said. “Mike had a decision, DJ had a decision, all of them had decisions with the transfer portal now.
“I think our group is collectively well, and they take care of each other. It wouldn’t have been a situation where they’re leaving because they weren’t happy or didn’t get along with each other (or) they just wanted a change in environment. I thought they would all come back.”
The leader of the pack: Wiley, an All-Pac-12 honorable-mention selection who is one of three scholarship players left from Arizona’s 2019 recruiting class, along with left tackle Jordan Morgan and punter Kyle Ostendorp. The 6-foot, 210-pound Wiley scored 11 all-purpose touchdowns in as many games played, with a career-high 771 rushing yards, which ranked ninth in the Pac-12. Wiley also had 349 receiving yards and averaged 9.7 yards per catch last season.
“All my life I always thought I was a receiver in my head, so that’s just the mindset I always carry,” Wiley said. “I trust my hands, and it’s just second nature. … I feel confident catching the ball in any situation, but that took time for me.”
Wiley stamped his 2022 campaign with a 12-carry, 214-yard, three-touchdown performance against ASU and won the Bob Moran Award for Territorial Cup MVP.
“To beat them like that and to have (the) game that I had was something special, and that just meant a lot to me,” Wiley said. “To send our seniors off the right way was special to me.”
Then it was decision time. Turn pro or return for one final season to improve your draft stock?
Graham’s advice: “ ‘I’m a businessman, and that’s a decision for you. You want my advice? I will tell you.’ But he did a great job talking to Coach (Jedd) Fisch, obviously his dad and mom, and he made a great decision coming back.”
Said Wiley: “I just wanted the most amount of information to make that decision the right way.”
He said Fisch and Graham got it for him. And then?
“I decided to come back,” Wiley said, “and I’m just excited to finish my legacy here.”
Now the do-it-all Wiley headlines a quartet of multi-skilled running backs who are expected to rotate in 2023.
Since the 6-2, 225-pound Williams transferred from Florida State during preseason training camp in 2022, he’s had an “incredible transformation,” Graham said.
“That goes back to our strength and conditioning,” Graham said. “We have the best strength and conditioning coach in the country in (Tyler Owens), you guys know that. Look at our team; we don’t look the same way we did two years ago. Guys have arms now, their backs are bigger. It’s unique to see our team right now.”
It’s easy to assume that if you gain muscle and get bigger you’ll also get slower.
“But DJ actually got faster because he got bigger,” Graham said.
With Arizona’s four primary running backs officially settled into the offense as a unit, the rushing depth is expected to elevate an Arizona offense that finished sixth in FBS in passing last season. For Graham, the running back rotation is akin to Batman’s gadget belt.
“(Fisch) has in mind what he wants to run against the defense, so it’s my job to make sure they’re ready,” Graham said. “So, if he needs a Swiss Army Knife and wants to bring out the bat thing over here (grabs on waistband) ... we got all of them. Big, powerful dude, that’s DJ. Jonah can do a little bit of everything. Mike is a unique open-field runner.
“We have a palette of unique skill sets. … I’m looking forward to finishing this spring strong, having a great camp and really bringing on a unit of top-notch gentlemen to perform and dominate the Pac-12.”
Be like Mike
As RB1, Wiley shoulders the responsibility to mentor his younger cohorts.
“I’m not one of those rah-rah guys, but one thing I can do is I’ll come to work every day, do the right thing, stay out of trouble and just lead by example, and that’s how I excel as a leader,” Wiley said. “Our running back room does a good job of following my lead. I’m really excited to lead these guys.”
Wiley said he’s seen “growth, growth, growth” from Coleman and Luke this spring.
“Those two love to get better every day,” Wiley said. “Being around those guys, they push me. … To see where they were and to see where they are now, I’m happy to see it.”
In 12 games as a true freshman, Coleman rushed for 372 yards and four touchdowns. The 5-9, 225-pound bruiser stiff-armed a defender at the goal line for a touchdown during practice on Thursday and appears to have all the traits for a third-and-short converter.
“I kinda pick on him for the Maurice Jones-Drew (comparison), but Maurice Jones-Drew is a hell of a running back,” Wiley said.
Luke, the 5-9 Los Angeles-area product nicknamed “Speedy,” came to Arizona as a four-star prospect but was limited by an ankle injury that sidelined him for a month. In spring practice, Arizona has utilized Luke on swing passes and screens.
“When you see him catch the ball, it’s a problem,” Graham said. “He can outrun any angle.”
Sometimes Luke lives up to the longtime nickname a little too much.
“You don’t have to run in fifth gear all the time. You can run in second or third gear, then take off,” Graham said. “Speedy is learning, and he’s learning at a tremendous speed.”
As Luke continues to mature, Graham wants him to “keep developing and learning from Mike Wiley.”
“Mike has done a great job coaching him. … For me (it’s satisfying) to see Mike mature into being a leader and really develop the rule, pulling guys aside when they’re getting kinda funky and picking ‘em up as they go,” Graham said.
“To have a guy like that, if God allows, he’ll be playing in the NFL next year.”
Graham said Johnson, Arizona’s 17-year-old running back, is “a baby.” Said Graham: “When I say a baby, he’s really a baby. Sometimes I’ll joke with him when he comes visits my office, and I’m like, ‘You should probably be at lunch right now.’ He’ll just laugh and say, ‘Yeah, I should be at lunch.’ For Brandon, he was swimming, now he’s got his footing. ... You cannot be an average guy to play in our offense. ... For Mike Wiley to say, ‘Good run, way to play physical,’ that’s gotta make the kid feel good.”
Second-year receiver AJ Jones had probably his best practice this spring on Thursday, hauling in a 40-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass, then later high-pointing a ball over cornerback Tacario Davis for a touchdown.
Redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Taylor intercepted quarterback Jayden de Laura on a deep ball down the sideline during the Wildcats’ 7-on-7 segment. Taylor picked off backup quarterback Noah Fifita later on in practice.
Per the UA, over 8,000 spots have been secured for Arizona’s spring game scheduled for April 15 at 3:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium. The event is open to the public, and seats can be reserved at ArizonaWildcats.com.