After offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes installed his innovative spread offense in 2007, fans called the Wildcats' attack the “AirZona Offense”. While there is no doubt that Arizona has flourished in the passing game since Dykes' arrival, the running game has been just as impressive.
One of the Pac-10’s best one-two punches at running back returns to the Old Pueblo this fall. Head coach Mike Stoops has assembled a talented backfield, rich with depth and versatility.
Is it possible for a tailback to rush for a “quiet” 1,153 yards and 13 touchdowns? Junior Nic Grigsby did just that in 2008.
While other Pac-10 runners got all the accolades, the nimble Grigsby finished last season as the conference’s fourth-leading rusher. His 1,153 yards place him ninth in school history for yards in a season.
His 13 rushing touchdowns are third in school history for a single-season. The 5' 10", 190-pound speedster averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2008 and scored at least one TD in 10 of his 13 games played.
Grigsby suffered from fumbling issues at times last season, but he showed improvement towards the end of 2008.
He has tremendous vision and the ability to hit the hole with great acceleration. Grigsby seems to be at full speed right when he receives the handoff. He is an undersized back, but can be very effective as long as he isn’t asked to carry the ball 25-plus times a game. Grigsby will enter fall as the No. 1 tailback.
Joining Grigsby in the Wildcats backfield is sensational sophomore Keola Antolin. The 5' 8", 186-pound Las Vegas native will look to build on a tremendous freshman campaign. Last season, Antolin rushed for 525 yards and 10 scores in a backup role. His 10 TDs were a school-record for a freshman tailback in a single-season.
Antolin’s breakout performance may never have happened if not for Grigsby's fumbling problems. After Grigsby was pulled against Cal, Antolin electrified the Wildcat faithful with 149 yards rushing and three TDs. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry that day, and Arizona won the game easily.
From that point on, Grigsby and Antolin shared carries. Against Oregon, Antolin tied a school record with four rushing TDs in a game. He was named Pac-10 Player of the Week twice in 2008. Antolin also returned kicks, averaging 21.5 yards per return, and may factor into special teams again this season.
Like Grigsby, Antolin is undersized, but he uses his compact build to hide between his offensive-line before darting through an opening. He is a shifty runner that has multiple gears. He is more quick than fast, but is still a threat to score at any time. The combination of Grigsby and Antolin proved to be successful last season, and should be again in 2009.
The Wildcats talent at running back does not end with Grigsby and Antolin. The coaching staff is excited about one back in particular who could bring an element to the running game that Sonny Dykes offense has been missing. Redshirt freshman Greg Nwoko is a big, physical bruiser that fits goal-line situations perfectly.
At 6' 2", 220 pounds, he gives Arizona a power running game that is otherwise unachievable. Grigsby and Antolin are limited in short yardage situations. With Nwoko in the mix, Arizona has a back for every down and distance. The Pflugerville, Texas native looked very impressive in spring drills, and will have an opportunity to make a big impact for Mike Stoops’ club in 2009.
One other name to watch for is true freshman RB Daniel Jenkins. Jenkins was one of the Wildcats best recruits for 2009 and may be the fastest running back on the team. At 5' 9", 175, he is cut out of the Grigsby mold, and possesses excellent open-field skills. The Rancho Verde, Calif. product was rated as a four-star all-purpose back by Rivals.com. He may get a look as a return man as well.
Other running backs that will provide depth in 2009 are true freshman Kylan Butler and senior Nick Booth.
Running back is a big strength for the Arizona offense in 2009. Sonny Dykes may want to throw it more when a quarterback emerges, but for now, the Wildcats have a couple of stud runners that deserve the ball. With the offensive line in pretty good shape, Grigsby and Antolin should match last year’s production.
I'm looking for Nwoko to be used a lot in short distance situations. In the past, TE Rob Gronkowski had to come up with tons of third-down catches to keep drives alive. Now, Nwoko gives the ‘Cats a chance to convert third downs on the ground.
Overall, look for the Wildcats backfield to be one of the most productive units in the conference.
-Sam Saig, www.allpac10.com