Michael Lev: Why is Arizona's Michael Wiley so underrated? Here’s what pundits are missing

The most underrated player in the Pac-12 Conference — which, despite recent developments, is still a thing — plays right here in Tucson.
The most overlooked player in the league plays for your Arizona Wildcats.
That would be Michael Wiley, whose greatness has slipped through the cracks the way the fifth-year running back darts through defenders.
Wiley had a breakout season in 2022 that largely went unnoticed. Among returning running backs in the Pac-12, Wiley had the fifth-most rushing yards (771). Yet he couldn’t even make Athlon Sports’ third-team preseason all-conference offense. Athlon puts two running backs on each of its three teams.
Sorry, but there aren’t six running backs better than Wiley in the Pac-12.
Among all returning players in the Pac-12, Wiley tied for fourth in touchdowns from scrimmage (11). Yet the best he could do when it came to the official preseason All-Pac-12 teams, as voted upon by the media, was honorable mention.
(Confession: I did not vote on those awards this year. Consider this column my way of making it up to my fellow Michael.)
“Those that know, know,” UA running backs coach Scottie Graham said. “Those don’t know, write what you want to write. We’re gonna control what’s happening in Tucson. We’re excited. Keep thinking he can’t play.”
Wiley did make the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award, given to the nation’s top running back. It’s a well-deserved honor. But it’s also not exactly an exclusive club; the watch list consists of 75 players.
Pro Football Focus named Wiley to its preseason All-Pac-12 second team. The analysts at PFF apparently are the only ones who get it — the only ones who truly understand what makes a running back effective.
PFF tracks the number of yards ball-carriers gain after making contact with defenders. You know who had the highest yards after contact per rushing attempt in the nation last season (minimum 68 attempts)?
That would be Michael Wiley.
Wiley averaged a robust 4.66 yards after contact per attempt, per PFF.
“I don’t think he got arm-tackled once last year,” Graham said. “The year before he got arm-tackled.”
Wiley played through a couple of different injuries in 2021. He averaged just 2.28 yards after contact per rushing attempt that season.
Wiley spent the following offseason getting his body right. He put on muscle. He got faster.
It’s no wonder his overall yards per attempt more than doubled, climbing from 3.3 to 6.8.
“Taking care of my body was one of the huge things. ... I feel like I was playing hurt a lot,” Wiley said. “Doing that allowed me to feel how I’m supposed to feel before a game.”
Wiley missed one game last season. He played 440 of 845 offensive snaps, almost double the next-highest total for a UA running back (Jonah Coleman, 222). Wiley cramped up during the ASU game, but that was understandable; he had a career-high 214 rushing yards.
Speaking of which, many in my industry are still too focused on that stat — rushing yards — when it comes to assessing running backs. Carrying the ball is their primary job, of course. But it shouldn’t be the one and only criterion.
The primary goals for so-called skill-position players are to gain yards and score touchdowns. Running backs have two ways to do those two things. Wiley excels in both disciplines — rushing and receiving.
Wiley ranked sixth in yards from scrimmage (1,120) in the Pac-12 last season. Among returning players, he ranks fourth. Only two of the players ahead of him, Oregon’s Bucky Irving and Cal’s Jaydn Ott, are running backs. The other, Washington’s Rome Odunze, is a wide receiver.
“He can catch like a wide receiver,” Graham said of Wiley. “If (he were to) lose 10 pounds, he can play wide receiver tomorrow.
“Most running backs can’t catch like that,” Graham added. “It’s not even fair to judge him against most running backs.”
PFF charged Wiley with only two dropped passes last season. He was targeted 45 times. He caught 36 passes for 349 yards, averaging 9.7 yards per reception.
Among backs with at least 33 targets, Wiley tied for seventh nationally with an ADOT (average depth of target) of 1.5 yards. That was 0.3 yards higher than Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, whom the Detroit Lions selected 12th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft largely because of his ability to be a multipurpose weapon.
“I always felt like I’m a receiver playing running back,” said Wiley, who credited his hand-eye coordination to his basketball-playing days back in Houston.
Wiley has two older brothers, Jonathan and Jacob, who played college basketball. Both are 6-7.
Michael is listed a 6 feet, 210 pounds. He isn’t exceptionally big or powerful. He won’t run a 4.35 40. He doesn’t have ankle-breaking open-field moves a la Barry Sanders.
Wiley is just really good at everything — except self-promotion.
“I don’t talk a lot,” Wiley said. “I’m not ... putting myself out there a lot. I’m not flashy.”
I asked Wiley whether the lack of recognition bothers him. I expected him to say what most players say when asked that question or some version of it — that it doesn’t because they don’t pay attention to such things.
That’s not what Wiley said.
“Yeah, it bothers me,” he responded. “It gets under my skin. It’s just that competitive nature that I have.”
“But it’s just a list,” he added, referring to the preseason All-Pac-12 teams that excluded him. “There’s nothing, really, I can do until the game starts. I know once kickoff happens that I’m one of the best backs in the country.”
Wiley exceeded my expectations with that candid answer.
That makes me guilty of the mistake I accused others of making:
I underestimated Michael Wiley.

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