Arizona backs surprise all but coach

Arizona running back Nick Wilson scores a touchdown against UNLV during the second half Friday in Tucson, Ariz.

Rick Scuteri/AP

TUCSON, Ariz. — Calvin McGee never doubted the Arizona running backs. Others might have, but McGee did not waver.

And just like that the group rushed for 270 of Arizona’s eye-opening 353 yards in last week’s season opener.

"I kind of expected it because I thought they had been practicing well," said McGee, Arizona associate head coach and running backs coach. "That’s been good to see."

Their work was reaffirmed last week and will have to continue Thursday vs. Texas San Antonio at the Alamodome. The game will be broadcast on Fox Sports 1 at 5 p.m.

What their success does is offer a nice — and comfortable — balance between the run and the pass, something Arizona was expected to be very good at with its plethora of talented wide receivers. They didn’t disappoint with more than 425 yards in the air.

But it was the ground game that impressed.

For the 18th consecutive game — and 24 of 27 under Rich Rodriguez — Arizona had a rusher with 100-plus yards. Last week, Arizona had two behind Terris Jones-Grigsby’s 124 and Nick Wilson’s 104.

5 p.m. Thursday
Where: Alomodome, San Antonio
TV: FOX Sports 1
Replays: FOX Sports Arizona at 10:30 p.m. Friday, 6 a.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Monday

They offer a nice one-two punch and there’s a third/fourth in Jared Baker, a speedster who has worked his way back from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of last year’s regular season.

"They are all kind of the same guy," Rodriguez said. "They are more similar than different."

So, what becomes of Baker, who went into camp running neck-and-neck with Jones-Grigsby but now lists as Arizona’s fulltime kick returner, listed behind Jones-Grigsby, Wilson and senior transfer Adonis Smith at running back?

"Every time he plays he’s getting more and more confidence in himself," Rodriguez said. "Hopefully, he’ll continue to get better. He knows what he’s doing."

It’s the benefits of being a knowledgeable senior, who has seen what’s expected and how it’s done in watching star Ka’Deem Carey. But, it’s long been said none are Carey, Arizona’s two-time All-American.

"It’s always good to be patient when you have some else going through it," said Baker, referring to waiting his turn alongside Jones-Grigsby.

He does feel more comfortable and will continue to do what’s asked as a kick returner, waiting to be called to run the ball when needed. And, yes, McGee said Baker will be needed.

"He’s getting into a rhythm," McGee said.

It didn’t help that he was knocked out of that rhythm two weeks into camp when he seemed to have reinjured his left knee on a hit.

"It was kind of scary because I didn’t know what I had done to it," said the soft-spoken Baker. "But the next day I got the MRI and I was fine. I was just sore for a couple of days."

His comfort level though is getting better, and it’s huge that he’s "under the lights" as the team’s kick returner. He’ll continue to be patient, just as he always has just like Jones-Grigsby did, going from walk-on to scholarship to now starter. Rodriguez said Jones-Grigsby ran hard and played well, hitting the gaps when he had to.

"He did a lot of things we were hoping he’d do," McGee said.

After Friday’s game, Jones-Grigsby thanked everyone he could in being patient with him as he had waited "for my rookie start" for a long time. It’s been since 2010 since he’s been THE guy. After the game his legs where still "shaky" and he was noticeably happy.

"Coach Rod tells us to (have a) vision," he said.

It helps to believe in yourself and move forward. Just as Arizona’s backs have since the start of camp. It helps when their coach, McGee, believes in them, too.

Follow Steve Rivera on Twitter