TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona will have a hard time replacing Ka’Deem Carey with one running back.
A two-time All-American, Carey left the desert with nearly every rushing record in the Wildcats’ book. Now that he’s gone to the NFL, the Wildcats are auditioning six players in camp who have a combined total of 200 college carries – 452 fewer than Carey had the past two seasons.
”You want three ready to go,” said Calvin Magee, Arizona’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach. ”But you never know that. It could be two, it could be three, it could be one. I didn’t plan it that way, for Ka’Deem to be one; he just never got tired.”
Carey was arguably the best running back in Arizona history, rushing for 4,239 yards and 48 touchdowns in three seasons before being drafted by the Chicago Bears this year.
Finding a way to replace his production has been a big point of emphasis from spring practice through fall camp, and the Wildcats have multiple options.
The player getting the most first-strings reps in practice as Arizona prepares for its Aug. 29 opener against UNLV is fifth-year senior Terris Jones-Grigsby, who has slowly worked his way up after arriving as a walk-on in 2010.
Jones-Grigsby is the half-brother of former Arizona running back Nic Grigsby, who ran for 2,957 yards from 2007 to 2010. Jones-Grigsby has helped on special teams in the past two seasons but has no carries. He was put on scholarship in the summer of 2013 and coach Rich Rodriguez called him one of the toughest players on the team.
”Terris is solid, very solid in every area,” Magee said. ”That’s what makes him pretty good. He won’t make many mistakes. He can play in a football game and you know he is going to be sound. That’s what I love about him.”
Jones-Grigsby’s experience in the system is an initial plus, but potential flashier options exist.
Junior Jared Baker spent the past two seasons behind Carey and Daniel Jenkins, rushing 47 times in low-leverage situations. He arrived at camp ahead of schedule from a torn ACL suffered Nov. 30 at Arizona State.
At 5-foot-8, 192 pounds, he’s like most of the Arizona backs – short and compact – but he might be the fastest. Baker said he’s close to top speed and has been able to take contact in practice.
”He can still run,” Magee said. ”That is the one thing God gave him. It’s amazing he can still run like that after surgery.”
Two freshmen also have a chance to contribute: Nick Wilson, a consensus four-star recruit from Fresno, California, and three-star recruit Jonathan Haden of Washington, D.C. Haden’s oldest brother, Joe, is an All-Pro cornerback for the Cleveland Browns.
”Wilson is a bigger guy, and Haden will play both at running back and in the slot,” Rodriguez said. ”Haden is one of the quickest guys we have on the team, and Nick is a bigger, more physical guy. They both look like they have a chance to play as freshmen.”
Wilson might have the most potential in turning into an all-down back like Carey was. He kept an eye on Carey even before committing to Arizona, then met him at UA’s junior day a couple of years ago.
”I was standing next to him and I was like, `We’re the same height, the same weight, the same body build.’ We even look a little bit similar,” Wilson said. ”Everybody kind of calls me `Young Ka’Deem’ or `Little `Deem.’ When I committed and started watching him a little bit more, I was like, `Whoa, if he can succeed in this offense, why can’t I?”’
A couple of others might be thinking the same thing.
Arizona added UNLV transfer Adonis Smith this summer, and he has looked solid in practice despite being on campus for only a few weeks. Smith, who began his career at Northwestern, accounts for the other college carries on the roster, with 153, including 28 for 70 yards last season.
And sophomore Zach Green (5-10, 220) could add some heft to the backfield.
Rodriguez’s hurry-up, zone-read offense is running-back friendly. In 12 years as a head coach at the FBS level at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona, his teams have finished in the national top 15 in rushing nine times.
Carey rushed 349 times for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, becoming the school’s first conference Offensive Player of the Year since it joined the Pac-10 in 1978. His replacement(s) have a lot to live up to, but the coaching staff might have time to figure out the rotation with opening games against UNLV, UTSA, Nevada and Cal.
”We have some variety. We have some guys,” Magee said. ”They are all doing so well, it’s making it fun.”