Whether Ka'Deem Carey does or doesn't lead the nation in rushing for a second straight season, the junior Arizona running back has already surpassed his breakout sophomore campaign.
"[Arizona coaches] think he's better than he was a year ago," head coach Rich Rodriguez said on Tuesday's Pac-12 teleconference call.
Carey rolls into the Wildcats' matchup on Saturday with UCLA leading all Football Bowl Subdivision players in rushing yards per game with 153. That's about six yards per game more than his nearest competitor, Boston College's Andre Williams, and five ahead of Carey's own pace in 2012.
Seven rushers have more total yards than Carey, the result of the junior missing the season opener against Northern Arizona for disciplinary reasons.
He's had no problem making up for lost time.
Carey set the tone immediately, taking his first touch of the season 58 yards for a touchdown. He finished his debut night with 171 yards, the first of seven games in which he's eclipsed the century mark in 2013, and one in 11 straight games of at least 100 yards dating back to last season.
His consistency this year is no small feat.
"There's certainly been more attention brought on him because of what he did last year, and having a new quarterback and new receivers," Rodriguez said.
|Player, School (Games Played)||Carries||Rushing Yards||Rushing Yards Per Game||TD|
|Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona (7)||188||1072||153.1||10|
|Andre Williams, Boston College (8)||216||1176||147.0||10|
|Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky (9)||202||1290||143.3||12|
|Bishop Sankey, Washington (8)||199||1162||145.3||11|
|Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin||124||1074||134.3||11|
|Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska (8)||157||1108||138.5||6|
|Lache Seastrunk, Baylor (7)||96||869||124.1||11|
Opposing defenses loaded up against the run earlier in the season, testing senior quarterback B.J. Denker's ability to pass. Rolling off yards with All-Conference quarterback Matt Scott to play off of was one thing; shouldering the lion's share of offensive burden with defenses keyed in on him was another.
Carey responded with an all-around approach that proved difficult for opposing defenses to manage, even with Denker still settling into his new role as starting quarterback. UCLA head coach Jim Mora rattled off the many facets of Carey's skill set.
"He runs hard. He's got great vision. He's good after contact. He's elusive. He's powerful. He's a slasher. He can catch it in the open field. He can break the long one in the open field. He can get the tough yards up inside," he said.
In other words?
"He's got all the attributes you look for in a great running back," Mora said.
Denker is now playing confidently, and the Wildcats offense is beginning to click. As a result, the Wildcats are 6-2 and opening a critical four-game stretch with a Pac-12 South division title in reach.
To be sure, Carey's been the cornerstone. But it's not the most important responsibility he's taken on since last season.
Coming off his All-America season, Carey ran into a series of off-field issues that threatened his future. A domestic violence charge, which was eventually dropped, and run-in with event staff and campus police during an Arizona basketball game forced Rodriguez to draw a hard line for Carey.
You could tell Rich Rod's a great coach [by] the way he handled everything. He just put me on this tight rope that I needed to be on. It helped me as a person and helped me grow as a young man trying to develop myself and find myself.
At July's Pac-12 media day, Rodriguez said a preseason Heisman Trophy campaign was scrapped as a result of his transgression.
Proving himself both on the field and off it, Arizona athletics is now embracing Carey's Heisman candidacy. The communications department rolled out its #TeamKaDeem campaign recently on Twitter and YouTube.
A social media campaign might be necessary to draw media attention to Carey, but the conference's coaches are already well aware of his exploits.
"I don't think you stop him. He's too good," Mora said. "You can just hope to contain him a little bit, not let him break the long ones that break your will."
UCLA's celebrated defense will line up opposite of him Saturday night in a nationally televised clash on ESPN, trying to slow Carey's run at history.
Should he again lead the nation in rushing, he won't be the first in Arizona program history to do so.
Of course, when the "Cactus Comet" Art Luppino set the pace with 1,359 and 1,313 yards in consecutive seasons, Dwight Eisenhower was president, Arizona had been a state for just four decades and the Wildcats shared the Border Conference with such football heavyweights as Hardin-Simmons and West Texas Teachers' College.
Luppino didn't receive a single Heisman vote in 1954 or 1955, the two seasons he was college football's top ball-carrier. Arizona was in football oblivion then.
But that's not an issue for Carey.
"Every game we play is on TV. Every game is a big game," Rodriguez said. "Even though we play some late games on the West Coast, people are following him closely enough now that he's got an opportunity to show what's he about every time we play."
If he hasn't already, Carey is etching his name into the Arizona football annals as the program's greatest running back, ahead of Luppino and Trung Canidate.
Rodriguez isn't ready to divulge where Carey ranks among the running backs he's coached, which include standouts Quincy Wilson, Noel Devine and Steve Slaton. But he did pull back the curtain a bit on what makes Carey dynamic.
"We've talked about it, [running backs] coach [Calvin] Magee and I, that we've had some really, really good [running backs] and they're all unique in a certain way, whether they were speed guys or power guys, or a combination of both. And Ka'Deem is unique.
"I hate to rank them, but he's certainly one of the best, because not only his combination of his ability to run and break tackles, but just how hard and hungry he runs each and every snap. [He] truly makes you tackle him each and every time he has the ball."