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Arizona Wildcats’ running back tradition leaves much to be desired

Mike Bell’s NFL career included 654 rushing yards in 2009 with Super Bowl champion New Orleans. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images Sport

I noticed a small transaction last month; the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League cut former Arizona Wildcats running back Nic Grigsby from training camp.

That got me thinking and, eventually, researching.

At some point early in his junior season at Arizona, in 2009, Grigsby was on pace to better the school career rushing record, held by Trung Canidate (3,824 yards). Then Grigsby was hit by injuries and, when healthy, he split time with Keola Antolin in his final two seasons.

Grigsby, who finished with 2,957 career years at UA, was undrafted, spending time in the camps of the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers last year but not making it into a game. And now he’s looking for work again.

That’s kind of the way it has been for even the best of Arizona running backs over the years.

Much is made of the Wildcats’ woeful record of producing NFL quarterbacks — a black mark that Philadelphia Eagles rookie Nick Foles can began to erase — but Arizona’s running back tradition isn’t much better.

That’s not to say the Cats haven’t a few great college running backs since joining the Pac-10 in 1978 — David Adams, Ontiwaun Carter, Canidate, Clarence Farmer (if only briefly). None of those, however, made an impact in the NFL, despite the speedy Canidate entering with high expectations, being the last pick in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft.

Two of the most talented Arizona runners were not running backs in the NFL; Vance Johnson and Michael Bates were drafted as receivers. Johnson went on to fame as part of the Denver Broncos “Three Amigos” receiving corps, while Bates became an All-Pro kick returner.

So, as far as running backs as running backs, the Cats have a dismal track record. When you look at which schools in the Pac-10 era produced the best NFL rushers, Arizona ranks at the bottom of the list — and that includes Pac-12 sophomores Utah and Colorado, too.

Some bullet points:

– Arizona is one of five Pac-12 schools that hasn’t had a consensus All-American running back since 1978. The others are Arizona State, Oregon State, Utah and, surprisingly, Washington (how was Napoleon Kaufman not a consensus All-American?).

– An Arizona running back has been selected first-team All-Pac-10/12 six times, tied with Arizona State and Washington State for the lowest total in the conference.

– Four of the top seven Arizona rushers of the Pac-12 era went undrafted — Carter, Mike Bell, Grigsby and Farmer.

– Arizona has had only eight players drafted as running backs since 1978, and only three of those were selected higher than the sixth round — Chuck Levy, Canidate and Chris Henry, whose fabulous NFL Combine workout fooled Tennessee into overlooking his lack of college production. The Titans wasted a second-round pick on him in 2007.

– And the most damning evidence: Arizona players drafted as running backs since 1978 have produced only 4,842 yards in the NFL, which ranks last among current Pac-12 teams.

Here is the list, which includes five guys named Chris (fun fact!) and Larry Croom, who finished his college career at UNLV.

Player NFL yards
Mike Bell 1,475
Trung Candidate 1,095
Hubie Oliver 1,030
Larry Heater 373
Chris Jennings 220
Chuck Levy 217
Chris Henry 122
Chris Brewer 83
Larry Croom 76
Chris McLemore 58
David Adams 49
Chris Gronkowski 35
Gilbert Harris 9
Total 4,842

I clicked around on pro-football-reference.com long enough to know that every school in the Pac-12 has produced more, often much more, than 4,842 yards in the NFL in the past 33 seasons.

Let’s start with the other schools that turned out only six first-team all-conference running backs.

Arizona State laps Arizona just with Gerald Riggs (8,188 yards) — and Leonard Russell (3,973) and Mario Bates (3,048) had more success than any Wildcat.

Washington State trumps Arizona with the duo of Rueben Mayes (3,484 yards) and first-rounder Steve Broussard (2,625), plus Jerome Harrison has 1,681 yards.

Elsewhere in the league …

Oregon State ends the discussion with Steven Jackson (9,093 yards). No need to go past Utah’s Jamal Anderson (5,336 yards).

Ka'Deem Carey

Ka’Deem Carey rushed for 425 yards and six touchdowns as a true freshman. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Oregon’s duo of Maurice Morris and Reuben Droughns combined for 7,250 yards. Colorado tops Arizona’s total with Chris Brown (3,024), Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam (1,684 yards) and Eric Bieniemy (1,589).

No need to spend much time wondering if the other teams in the league exceeded Arizona’s 4,842 yards.

Washington has Corey Dillon. USC has Marcus Allen. UCLA has Freeman McNeil and current star Maurice Jones-Drew (6,854 yards). Cal’s Marshawn Lynch nearly equaled Arizona’s total by himself (4,542).

Stanford — which leads the league with 12 first-team selections at running back since 1978 (USC has 11) — has had solid NFL runners, led by Darrin Nelson (4,442 yards).

And that’s the rest of the conference.

There is no immediate help on the way. The ex-Wildcat who rushed for the most yards in the NFL last season was linebacker-turned-fullback Spencer Larsen (44 yards).

The Wildcats’ recent passing spread offense helped Foles become a third-round pick this year. With new coach Rich Rodriguez bringing in the read-option offense, the emphasis will be on the running game.

During spring ball, Rodriguez seemed pleased with the talent and depth at running back. The next great hope for Arizona’s running game could be sophomore running back Ka’Deem Carey, but that’s definitely a wait-and-see scenario.

For a program that has generated zero NFL passing yards from a quarterback since joining the Pac-10, there is a long way to go on the ground, too.

* * *

Arizona players drafted as running backs since 1979

Year Player Round
1980 Larry Heater 6th
1981 Hubie Oliver 10th
1984 Chris Brewer 9th
1987 Chris McLemore 11th
1987 David Adams 12th
1994 Chuck Levy 2nd
2000 Trung Canidate 1st
2007 Chris Henry 2nd
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