DeMarco Murray knows what it takes to excel as a running back at the highest levels of football. He knows what a superior back looks like.
The player has to have a certain athletic skill set, of course. But he also must possess a specific makeup.
Murray sees all those traits and more in the tailback he coaches for the Arizona Wildcats: redshirt junior J.J. Taylor.
“He’s one of a kind,” Murray said. “Pound for pound, one of the strongest guys on the team. He has a burst of energy. He’s a guy that works hard every single day.
“Very smart guy. Very selfless guy. When you have that much success, it usually doesn’t go that way. But J.J. is a remarkable guy, loved by his teammates — more importantly, respected by his teammates.”
At 5 feet 6 inches, Taylor is the shortest player on the UA roster. No one commands more respect.
It goes well beyond his on-field accomplishments, which include 1,434 rushing yards last season, fourth most in Arizona history; an average of 175.6 all-purpose yards per game in 2018, second most among FBS players; and a spot in the top 10 on the Wildcats’ career rushing list with at least one more season to go.
Here are three qualities that make the Corona, California, product special:
Taylor is versatile. Fox Sports analyst Petros Papadakis, himself a former tailback, said Taylor reminds him of two players. “If you took James Rodgers and Quizz Rodgers and made them one guy,” Papadakis said, “it’d be J.J Taylor.”
James and Jacquizz Rodgers starred for Oregon State a decade ago. James, a slot receiver, was listed at 5-7; Jacquizz, a tailback, was listed at 5-6.
Taylor has the same instincts and power to run between the tackles as Jacquizz, while being able to catch the ball out of the backfield like James.
Papadakis recalled seeing Taylor during pregame warmups in 2016, when he missed most of the season because of a broken ankle.
“He was darting around like a gnat,” Papadakis said. “I remember seeing his feet move, watching him catch the ball with one hand. It was like a YouTube trick video. But then I was just delighted to see what a physical guy he was.”
Taylor is tougher than you think. Don’t be fooled by the dimensions — officially 5-6, 185 pounds. Taylor is indisputably Arizona’s best blocking back.
“He has natural leverage against us,” UA linebacker Tony Fields II said. “And then he’s just so quick and strong.”
Taylor’s backfield mates have a hard time picking out one Taylor blitz pickup that stands out above the rest because there have been so many. Fellow tailback Gary Brightwell tried.
“Against BYU, the first game,” Brightwell said, referring to last year’s opener. “He cut a dude, and he actually put him out of the game. He had plenty more.”
Quarterback Khalil Tate doesn’t see those blocks happening in real time. But he knows that more often than not, those blitzers don’t get to him.
“I’ll see pictures of people in the air,” Tate said. “I would move in the pocket, thinking somebody’s going to get me, and he would flip them. It’s good to have that protector.”
Taylor is genuinely humble. He does not like to talk about himself — at all. Which made Taylor an interesting choice to represent Arizona at Pac-12 Media Day last month.
“It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with it,” he said. “I’d rather be able to … give props to somebody else.”
Asked to detail his goals for the 2019 season, Taylor said: “Being able to say, ‘I got you’ — my teammates knowing this is a guy that actually has my back.”
Junior quarterback Rhett Rodriguez described Taylor as “the epitome of a perfect leader.”
Taylor said those responsibilities include checking in with teammates “to see how they’re doing, make sure they’re good, whether they did their workout. And then also making sure kids are going to tutoring and study hall on time — making sure that we’re showing respect toward the people that are trying to help us out.”
When the subject of his workload is brought up, Taylor says he doesn’t care whether he touches the ball one time or 40 times, which happened in last year’s Colorado game. He only cares whether the team is doing well.
“It really doesn’t matter to me,” Taylor said, “as long as we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.”