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2008 Kentucky Football Preview: The Running Backs

Part two in an eight part series previewing the 2008 Kentucky Football Wildcats.

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Turtle and the Hares

The conclusion of a legendary era often comes quietly. Excellence that is consistently sustained over time inevitably becomes routine to outside observers. In other words, once someone does something that is amazing enough times, it ceases to seem like anything out of the ordinary. Such was the case last season with the conclusion of the career of Rafael Little. A brief look at the UK football record book leaves no question that Little was one of the most dominant players in UK history. In terms of career numbers, Little is in the top three all time in career rushing yards, hundred yard rushing games, yards per carry, punt return yards, punt return average and all purpose yards. Despite these accomplishments, there has been considerably more hand-wringing by UK fans in the preseason chatter over replacing departed quarterbacks and wide receivers than replacing this all time great. Why such little concern over replacing a back who is undoubtedly among the best to ever carry the ball in over 100 years of Kentucky football? Part of the reason is undoubtedly the phenomenon mentioned previously. Rafael Little was so good for so long at UK that his exploits ultimately became run of the mill to Cat fans and his productivity taken for granted. The more encouraging part of the answer lies in a deep group of talented backs who appear more than ready to be promoted from supporting characters to lead roles in Joker Phillips’ offense.

Depth Chart (predicted for August 31, 2008)

Tailback:

Tony Dixon 5-9, 203 Sr. Parrish, Ala. (Parrish)
Experienced back has gained 958 yards rushing with 8 touchdowns in 31 career games. Has made 13 career starts, but has struggled with a number of injuries throughout his career. Dependable back who knows the offense and carries a solid 4.5 career yard per carry average. Brooks loves his experience and toughness. May lack the flash and burst of Locke and Smith, but the smart money is on number 28 to be in the starting lineup against the Cards on Labor Day weekend.

Derrick Locke 5-9, 180 So. Hugo, OK (Hugo)
Burst onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere as a freshman in 2007 when the Cats’ tailback position was decimated by injuries. Late signee who came to Kentucky based on U.K.’s promise to let him play football and run track. Finished the season as U.K.’s second leading rusher with 521 yards and 5 touchdowns on 94 carries for an outstanding 5.5 yards per carry. Played huge roles in Kentucky’s historic wins at Arkansas and over #1 L.S.U. Possesses amazing speed as evidenced by being named an Indoor Track and Field All American in 2007.

Alfonso Smith 6-1, 204 Jr. Louisville, KY (Waggener)
Has seen significant time in a reserve role in first two seasons in Lexington. Career numbers include 81 carries for 399 yards and 4 touchdowns. Averaged 4.9 yards per carry for his U.K. career. Has also caught 13 passes for 118 yards and 1 touchdown. Became a stalwart as a gunner on kick coverage in 2007. Was the star of the spring Blue White Game with 170 yards rushing. Speed may be second only to Locke as evidenced by his class AAA state championship in the 100 meters as a senior.

Moncell Allen 5-7, 225 So. New Orleans, LA (Providence Day)
Played in all 13 games as a true freshman at tailback, fullback and on special teams. Finished with 11 carries for 39 yards. Though probably listed 3rd or 4th on the depth chart, Allen has the opportunity to see extensive time as a short yardage back as he is the only tailback with a build that is conducive to that role. Possesses extreme athleticism that belies his bowling ball frame. Has been compared to Maurice Jones Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Fullback:

John Connor 5-11, 230 Jr. West Chester, OH (Lakota West)
Classic I Formation lead blocker who has played in 29 career games with 7 starts. Kentucky’s offense rarely allows the fullback to carry the ball, but Connor has been extremely efficient when he has the opportunity to make plays with the ball. He has touched the ball on offense 17 times in his career (8 rushes, 9 receptions), and has scored 5 touchdowns. Still, will earn his keep opening holes for the tailbacks.

A.J. Nance 5-11, 241 Jr. Knoxville, TN (Central)
Moved to fullback in Spring after playing linebacker in 2006 and 2007. Has played in all 26 games since arriving in Lexington in 2006, mostly on special teams. SEC Academic Honor Roll in 2007.

Maurice Grinter 6-3, 253 Jr. Louisville, KY (Fairdale)
Will get first look at tight end this fall after spending freshman and sophomore years at fullback, as coaches look to get an athletic play-maker at that position. Still, may end up spending time at fullback. Career numbers include 10 carries for 36 yards and 7 catches for 39 yards.

Outlook:

Despite the loss of Little, Kentucky is deep, talented and experienced in the backfield. The four deep at tailback sports a collective 1900 career rushing yards and 18 touchdowns. Dixon, Locke and Smith are all somewhat undersized, but can all run. Locke and Smith were both reputed to run sub 4.4 forties at Kentucky’s pro day. Moncell “the Turtle” Allen gives the Cats a punishing power rusher to compliment the speedy trio. The fullbacks won’t get much glory in Joker Phillips’ offense, but John Connor is an old school linebacker smasher in the mold of Lorenzo Neil. Connor and Grinter also possess the athleticism to make a defense pay for ignoring them when carrying the ball or catching it out of the backfield.

The primary concern at the running back position is whether the tailbacks will have the same success in a lead role that they had in spot duty behind Rafael Little. This may be especially difficult with what figures to be decreased passing efficiency as compared to the last two years. Defenses are likely to overload the line of scrimmage to defend Kentucky’s perceived offensive strength. The Cats’ ability to overcome or counteract this strategy will likely define its offensive success in 2008.

Article written by Duncan Cavanah