In collaboration with our Gannett partner, The Arizona Republic, we will be providing a weekly series throughout the summer, previewing the Arizona Wildcats football team.
The Republic sent a photographer to Tucson three times in the spring to capture the pictures needed for its slick presentation of the preview, which you can find here at azcentral.com. You can also read about those other guys all summer in the ASU preview.
At TucsonCitizen.com, we can’t offer the cool look of the preview that you’ll find on azcentral.com, but we’ll give you the text and some of the photography.
Here is the fourth part: The running backs. Look for updates every Friday.
Coach Mike Stoops says the Wildcats need to run the ball better, which isn’t the same as running the ball more.
“I think we’re going to throw it more,” he said.
What Stoops wants to see is a more explosive attack that will complement the team’s spread passing game. The Wildcats tried different sets and blocking schemes in the spring to try to get tough yards and big lanes up the middle as they spread out the defense.
Arizona averaged 131.7 rushing yards per game last season — eighth in the conference — and not quite four yards per carry.
In UA’s system, there figures to be ample carries for only two running backs, which sets up a fall camp battle behind dependable Keola Antolin.
Antolin was the team’s leading rusher as a junior, running for 668 yards and an average of 4.7 yards per carry.
He doesn’t have a lot of wiggle in his running style, but the bulldog-like back attacks the line of scrimmage and showed his straight-line speed with a 78-yard touchdown burst against Washington.
“I’m very impressed with how our backs hit the hole,” said new offensive line coach Robert Anae, also the running game coordinator. “Our little backs, they hit it every bit as intense as some of the big backs that I’ve been around.”
Antolin has proven capable in the short passing game, with 45 receptions in the past two seasons, when he mostly split time with the departed Nic Grigsby.
Jenkins, a sophomore, took advantage of injuries elsewhere in the backfield this spring to make a case for the backup role. He was the leading rusher in the spring game with eight carries for 35 yards.
“Daniel Jenkins had a real productive spring,” coach Mike Stoops said.
Jenkins has generally looked good in scrimmages in the past two years, with a nice blend of moves and speed, although he still has to prove that he has a “wow” factor. He carried eight times for 26 yards as a redshirt freshman, with six of those rushes coming in a blowout of The Citadel.
He’ll enter fall camp as No. 2 on the depth chart, trying to hold off other unproven players.
Butler arrived in the same 2009 recruiting class as Daniel Jenkins, and each has had to wait behind Nic Grigsby, Keola Antolin and Greg Nwoko.
Arizona wanted to get a longer look at Butler this spring — and he did get a team-high seven carries for 22 yards in the first scrimmage — but he was banged up by the end of the spring. He’ll resume the competition in the fall, but he’s a figurative step behind Jenkins.
Butler, from powerhouse De La Salle High in Concord, Calif., was Arizona’s first commitment in the 2009 class, pleading to the Cats while on a trip to see the 2008 spring game.
Nwoko has been Arizona’s primary big-back option in the past two seasons, primed for a more significant role in 2011 before suffering a torn ACL early in spring practice. The best-case scenario appears to be a mid-season return.
“You felt Greg was starting to come into his own,” coach Mike Stoops said.
Nwoko sat out as a freshman in 2008, so redshirting him is not an option.
He has shown enough in two seasons to be considered more than just a short-yardage specialist, with career totals of 133 carries for 453 yards and six touchdowns.
Ka’Deem Carey/Jared Baker
There are high hopes for Carey, the hometown kid from Canyon del Oro High School, who ran wild for 2,738 yards and 45 touchdowns as a junior before senior-year injuries cut into his production. He still rushed for 1,754 yards and 26 scores in 2010.
“We have to get more explosive plays out of our run game,” coach Mike Stoops said. “Players have to make plays sometimes, and he certainly brings big-play ability. … Ka’Deem will fit in the picture right away.”
With his highlight-making ability, Carey is expected to be one of the big stories of camp, although perhaps not the only one at running back. Baker, a freshman from Los Angeles, also has a chance to add needed zip to the ground attack.