Part two of an eight part series previewing the 2006 Kentucky Football Wildcats
Rafael Little Tony Dixon Alfonso Smith
Maurice Grinter John Conner Terrell Bankhead
Rafael Little is the living embodiment of the football term “all purpose.” Need a back with explosive speed to get to the corner? Little’s got the wheels. Need a back to break tackles? Little belies his modest frame by rarely going down on the first hit. Need a back to split wide or catch passes out of the backfield? Little led Kentucky in receiving in 2005. Need a return man? Little averaged 16.9 yards per punt return, good for fifth nationally. For good measure, he averaged a ridiculous 44.3 yards on three kickoff returns. There can be no question that these staggering numbers were more than enough to make Rafael Little Kentucky’s 2005 MVP. For Rich Brooks, however, the raw numbers can not compare to the moment in 2005 when Rafael Little saved his job.
On September 10, 2005, Commonwealth Stadium became a frightening place. Starter after starter fell to the turf with freakish injuries against a seemingly outmanned opponent. A lackluster Kentucky effort allowed Idaho State to stay in the game and the murmurs from the crowd became increasingly audible. With just over five minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Idaho Sate blocked a Kentucky punt and ran it into the end zone to take a 29 to 28 lead. Kentucky fans had seen it before. The Cats, defying all logic and evidence from the past, had overlooked an opponent, and were going to suffer a disgraceful loss as a result. Despite the carnage on the field, the crowd seemed to thirst for additional bloodshed in the coaching ranks. Rick Brooks’s professional life was hanging by a piece of dental floss. In stepped Rafael Little. Little asked the coaches to allow him to return the ensuing kickoff. 99 yards later, Kentucky was back in the lead. An interception and an insurance touchdown later, and Rich Brooks had a job for the remainder of the season. Running back. Receiver. Return man. Coach savior. All purpose.
Rafael Little 5’10”, 198 Junior Tailback, Anderson, South Carolina. 2005 numbers: 197 rushes for 1103 yards. 5.3 yards per carry with nine touchdowns. Caught 46 passes for 449 yards. What more can be said about Little? If anything, the Cats’ staff would like to see a few of the above numbers decrease. Little, who finished fifth nationally in total yards per game at 180.2, seemed to wear down somewhat as the season progressed. Coaches hope the return of Tony Dixon and the emergence of freshman Alfonso Smith will allow Little to catch a breather every now and then.
The supporting cast:
Tony Dixon 5’9″ 208 Sophomore Tailback, Parrish, Alabama. Missed 2005 after breaking his leg in the preseason. Many forget that going into fall camp, he was listed as the starter over Little after outstanding freshman year. 2004 numbers: 54 rushes for 244 yards. 4.5 yards per carry. Added 8 receptions for 61 yards. Has changed his body significantly since freshman campaign, adding significant weight and strength while retaining excellent speed.
Alfonso Smith 6’1″, 200 Redshirt Freshman Tailback, Louisville, Kentucky. Of all of Kentucky’s fleet feet at running back, Smith possesses the two fleetest. Always known to be a burner, Smith proved he could bang between the tackles as well this spring, capping off a nice camp with 97 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries in the Spring Game.
Maurice Grinter 6’3″, 253 Freshman Fullback, Louisville, Kentucky. Excellent athlete who spent most of his time in spring looking for a position. Bounced from safety to linebacker and now fullback. To good an athlete to keep off the field, the Kentucky staff hopes they can use his rare combination of size and speed at fullback as a blocker, pass catcher and runner.
John Conner 5’11”, 243 Redshirt Freshman Fullback, West Chester, Ohio. Big body who will be looked upon as a blocker.
Terrell Bankhead 5’11”, 220 Senior Fullback, San Diego, California. Primarily a blocker on offense. Has shown good special teams play in the past.
The Cats will go as far as their running backs will take them. Look for Little and Dixon to be used in much the way Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams were used at Auburn. In other words, the coaches will get the ball to both of them in every conceivable way. Running, receiving, and returning kicks. Smith should provide a nice third option, and is very capable of playing extended minutes if either Little or Dixon goes down. (Both are coming off of significant injuries, so that is a concern.) The fullback is not a featured weapon in Kentucky’s offense, but that could change if Grinter lives up to billing. The wildcard in all of this is Micah Johnson, who may do some double duty as a super-sized tailback.