TUCSON, Ariz. — When you’ve had a player like Ka’Deem Carey in the backfield for two years, you’ve been spoiled.
"It’s a wide-open deal," Rodriguez said Monday.
It’s such a wide-open deal that there’s no consensus as to who will be taking first-team handoffs in fall camp, let alone the season opener.
"You’re not going to have one guy who did as well has he did," Rodriguez said. "He was the best in the country. I won’t say (we’ll) do it by committee, but whomever is at that position, you’d better get production. To expect the same production as Ka’Deem — it’s not going to happen."
How could it? Carey was a two-time All-American who rushed for more than 4,000 yards and scored more than 50 touchdowns in his brief-but-brilliant three-year career. He was all but the face of the program.
The replacement? Whether it’s senior Terris Jones-Grigsby or redshirt freshman Zach Green or redshirt junior Jared Baker or … well, there are options. Receivers Samajie Grant and DaVonte’ Neal will see time in the backfield, too.
You’re not going to have one guy who did as well has he did. He was the best in the country. … To expect the same production as Ka’Deem — it’s not going to happen.
Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez on replacing Ka'Deem Carey
It’s an open audition. But hey, that’s what spring is for.
"It’s not so much in what we are searching for, but we’re trying to get faster," Rodriguez said. "We’re trying to the fastest guys in the field."
The candidates do smile a lot when asked about the potential and possibilities.
"There’s definitely a lot of opportunity," said Green, who was a three-star recruit out of Miami, Fla. "We have the spring game to show what we are all about. … Whoever it is, it is."
The leader in the clubhouse might be Jones-Grigsby, a diminutive 5-foot-7 redshirt senior whom Rodriguez has spoken highly of the last couple of weeks. Jones-Grigsby, who does not have a carry in his career, said he likes what he’s done this spring, referencing the fact that the coaches have described players’ performances as main level, attic or roof.
"I think I’m making my way to the top floor," he said. "I’ve been taking the criticism and have run with it."
He is a running back, after all. But with a goal of getting to the roof, Jones-Grigsby said, there’s plenty of work to be done.
But he, too, smiles about the opportunity.
"I’m one of the veterans," Jones-Grisby said. "I think they are not only looking at me to make big plays but to also teach these young guys what to do. They are the future. We know we have big shoes to fill, but we will take it day by day."
"There’s always pressure, man," he said. "We’re even bringing in receivers to take (the place) of running backs. But I love the competition. It’s why I’m a Division I player. They are my boys, but at the end of the day, I’m trying to get that top spot."
And there’s more to come. Four-star recruit Nick Wilson will arrive in the fall, Baker — the most experienced returner with 47 career carries — will return from a knee injury, and talented redshirt freshman Pierre Cormier also is in the mix.
One potential option whose status is unclear is freshman Jonathan Haden, who hasn’t gained his eligibility because of an NCAA hold-up after signing in February.
"It’s lost in the NCAA world," Rodriguez said. "Who knows where that is?"
In addition to the running backs, Neal, the former Scottsdale Chaparral standout who transferred from Notre Dame, will be used in a number of capacities. As Rodriguez put it, "he’s unproven, but he’s a guy who you want touching the ball. There are others. DaVonte’ has some natural playmaking skills."
Said Neal of his versatility: "I like it, because I think it adds a different feel to U of A. It keeps the defense guessing, and Coach Rodriguez has a great scheme in his head. We will let him lead us into the promised land."
First things first. Rodriguez must find a quarterback from a group of numerous talented but inexperienced options, a running back to replace Carey and a way to fit it all together into something functional.
"We’re making progress," Neal said. "We still have a whole other fall to make us even better."
Until then, it’s about figuring out how to fill the hole vacated by Carey, who carried the ball a whopping 349 times last season.
"It’s easier when you have a guy like Ka’Deem, because you know what you’re going to get," Rodriguez said. "In some ways, it’s fun to have that challenge.
"Would I rather have a bunch of Ka’Deems? You betcha."