Part two in an eight part series previewing the 2007 Kentucky Football Wildcats.
Count public address announcers and television play-by-play men among those who are not fans of the Kentucky backfield. No, they do not believe Rafael Little, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith lack talent. Instead, these professional talkers have simply grown weary of incessantly misidentifying Kentucky ball carriers. Let’s paint an all too familiar scene from last season. Tony Dixon bursts off tackle in an opposing stadium for a nice gain, only to hear over the P.A. system that Rafael Little had gained five yards on the play. This would no doubt have caused annoyance to Tony, except that he could be fairly confident that at some point in the contest, he would gain some yardage courtesy of Little, or Alfonso Smith, while sipping Gatorade on the sideline. In a last ditch effort to avoid this embarrassment, some color commentators simply threw up the white flag and identified every runner as Rafael Dixon. Please understand that none of the above is an attempt to criticize the media coverage of Kentucky’s games last season, though we are certainly not above that here at Kentucky Sports Radio. (Lincoln Financial, I am looking in your general direction.) In fact, it is often difficult for the most ardent fan, myself included, to determine who just carried the ball for the Cats until the player in question strolls back to the huddle. Quite simply, each of Kentucky’s primary running threats all have similar size, wear similar numbers, and share a common weapon: speed.
Tony Dixon is fast. Rafael Little, when healthy, is faster. Alfonso Smith is absurdly fast, sporting forty times roughly akin to the average Cincinnati Bengal blood-alcohol score. All three have demonstrated the ability to take the ball the distance on any snap. All three also possess a diverse set of skills that provide the Cats critical support not only in the running game, but in the passing game and on special teams as well. This is particularly the case for Rafael Little, who led the nation in total yards per game from scrimmage for most of his sophomore year before being significantly limited by a knee injury in 2006. Incoming freshmen Moncell Allen, Brandon Jackson and Derrick Locke all appear to be talented players who would certainly see significant time in the run of the mill Kentucky Football season, but may find themselves on the outside looking in this year.
Not since the days in which Artose Pinner was leaving his cleat marks on chest plates throughout the Southeastern Conference has Kentucky had a punishing runner made for moving the chains on third or fourth and short situations. The problem was no more apparent last year than in the Tennessee game in Knoxville, in which the Cats advanced inside the Tennessee 20 yard line 5 times, only to come away with a paltry 12 points. This lack of power at the point of attack also led the Cats to an 11th place finish in the SEC in rushing. This could be a concern with this year’s squad as well. Candidates to fill this short yardage need include fullback Maurice Grinter and linebacker Micah Johnson, who scored a touchdown in the Music City Bowl in a jumbo goal line package, after not appearing on offense all season. If he is able to fight loose of his redshirt, freshman fireplug Moncell Allen may have something to say about short yardage as well. Ultimately, this concern may be more related to offensive line issues than concerns over the running back position.
Rafael Little 5-10, 195 Sr. Anderson, S.C. (T.L Hanna)
On a team of solid backs, Little is the star. Currently 6th on the UK career rushing list with 1983 yards. Had 1000 yard rushing season as a sophomore before being slowed in 2006 by a mid-season arthroscopic knee surgery. Stellar career average of 5.1 yards per carry made even more impressive by the fact that his offensive line has been frequently outclassed by opponents. Has nearly 1000 career receiving yards as well. Dominant special teams play will be highlighted on upcoming special teams feature.
Tony Dixon 5-9, 203 Jr. Parrish, Al. (Parrish)
Experienced back up running back has played in 20 games at Kentucky, starting 11. Rushed for 303 yards and four touchdowns last season after missing 2005 with a broken leg. Scored the game winning touchdown in relief of a banged up Little in Kentucky’s benchmark victory over Georgia.
Alfonso Smith 6-1, 190 So. Louisville, Ky. (Waggener)
Generally, I give reports of football players running sub 4.4 forties approximately the same credence I give reports of summer pick up basketball games. (This just in, Josh Carrier is money, and if he doesn’t transfer to UCLA, he will be first team all SEC.) However, if you saw Alfonso Smith beat Florida’s defense around the edge in the Swamp last season, his reported forty time may be an exception. Smith, a former high school 100 meter state champ, was named offensive newcomer of the year by the coaches in 2006 after rushing 60 times for 250 yards.
Walk-ons Antoine Brown and Trey Bowland III are both returning players that will provide solid depth, but will struggle to find carries. Incoming freshmen Moncell Allen, Derrick Locke and Brandon Jackson are each highly regarded players who will likely redshirt.
Maurice Grinter 6-3, 250 So. Louisville, Ky. (Fairdale)
After switching from a crowded linebacker position to fullback in fall camp in 2006, most observers concluded that Maurice would jump immediately to the forefront. However, knee tendonitis combined with the outstanding blocking ability of John Conner led to Grinter splitting time in 2006. Now healthy, Grinter again will battle Conner for playing time.
John Conner 5-11, 228 So. West Chester, Oh. (Lakota West)
One of the truly pleasant surprises of 2006, Conner was a devastating lead blocker for the Cats. Played in all 13 games, starting three.
Ben Bates, Stephen Ball and Matt Ramsey will provide depth.
Assuming that there will be quality play from the offensive line, possibly a bold assumption based on recent history, Kentucky should improve its rushing numbers in 2007. Look for Little to regain his perch atop the SEC in total yards per game on his way to a first day selection in next year’s NFL draft. The Cats look to be in good shape at the position in the future as well due to a well balanced roster of backs. The tailback depth chart is made up of a senior, a junior and a sophomore, with three talented freshmen waiting in the wings.