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2019 Kentucky Positional Previews: Running Backs

The quarterbacks are complete and now it’s time to shift over in the offensive backfield. In 2019, Kentucky must replace a legend at tailback but they’ll be looking to fill that hole with a rotation and home run ability.

Recent History

Back in 1993, Moe Williams arrived to Lexington after a standout high school career in Columbus, Georgia. Immediately he made an impact on Bill Curry’s football team by rushing for 928 yards in his freshman season and averaging 5.7 yards per carry. After a step back during his sophomore season, Williams won the SEC rushing title his junior year (1,600 yards), averaged 5.4 yards per carry, scored 17 touchdowns, received all-league honors, and nearly was named an All-American before bolting for the NFL.

Williams would go on to play for a decade at the highest level before calling it quits. Many thought he would be the best running back in program history. That was before Benny Snell came to town.

The three-star prospect from Westerville, Ohio would run for over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons, obliterated the school’s touchdown record, became the school’s all-time leading rusher, was a two-time first-team All-SEC member, and a third-team All-American in 2018. He was a great one who will be missed.

After having the best running back in program history his first three seasons in Lexington, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran must flash his coaching chops he’s earned from decades of coaching running backs at Ole Miss, Auburn, Tennessee and Florida State to name a few. On this year’s roster, there are four former three-star recruits who will look to replace that massive hole left behind by one of the most popular football players to ever wear the blue and white.

The Running Back Room

Eddie Gran has been coaching running backs for a very long time and he has produced a ton of draft picks. Benny Snell is the most recent, but Gran has been around Devonta Freeman, Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Montario Hardesty. He knows how to coach and develop running backs. Kentucky’s offense will need that coaching ability to be on full display in 2019.

A.J. Rose will be enter fall camp at RB1 on the depth chart after rushing for 442 yards on 71 carries with five touchdowns last season. The three-star prospect out of the class of 2016 flashed home run ability with four runs going over 20-plus yards in 2018. If he keeps that pace up in a larger sample size it would mean the Wildcats are getting plenty of chunk plays from their backs. Something that did not happen the last two seasons with Benny Snell.

Kentucky’s coaching staff was able to redshirt Kavosiey Smoke last season, but the Alabama native was still able to get his feet wet. The dump truck of a back (5-foot-9, 225 pounds) has given us a few glimpses of his breakaway ability. In the blowout win over Louisville, Smoke went for 37 yards to the crib and in the spring game he got filthy on an 87-yard scamper. Expectations are high for the young buck.

Rounding out the depth chart is redshirt freshman Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. and true freshman Travis Tisdale. Rodriguez appears to be UK’s best option to become a power back and he could carve out a nice niche as a short-yardage option. Tisdale, meanwhile, is easily the smallest back of the bunch (5-foot-9, 172 pounds) but is already drawing Boom Williams comparisons. The dynamite runner rushed for 1,903 yards last season and has track speed when given a slither of space. It’s clear that Kentucky really wanted to address the home run ability of their running back crop.

2019 Outlook

Kentucky enters the season with a boatload of experience at quarterback and offensive line. In theory, that should be the running back group’s best friend. Expectations are high for A.J. Rose and it feels like he has a great chance to give the offense a 1,000 yard rusher for the fourth consecutive season. Kavosiey Smoke appears to have all the tools to be a big time back in the SEC. Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. brings power to the lineup while Travis Tisdale packs a big play pop. Those are a lot of options.

With those options are quite a few unknowns. No one knows if A.J. Rose will be able to handle an RB1 workload. Will he move the chains consistently enough for UK to stay patient and wait on the big play ability? We’ve only seen Kavosiey Smoke against Louisville and Kentucky’s twos and threes on defense. Can he produce on the biggest stage? Are Christopher Rodriguez, Jr. or Travis Tisdale anywhere close to being a contributing player? What happens if an injury hits?

This a group with a ton of potential, but also their fair share of questions to be answered. For what it’s worth, none of the current backs were blue-chip prospects so Kentucky is leaning heavily on the coaching ability of Eddie Gran. It appears that the strength program has A.J. Rose (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) ready to rock and roll in his fourth year in the program. Can Gran find a way to keep this group healthy and squeeze the most out of its talent? Will the three freshmen be ready to contribute this season if called upon?

If Kentucky is going to reach their offensive ceiling they are going to need for their backs to move the chains in addition to providing the home run play.



Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR

8 Comments for 2019 Kentucky Positional Previews: Running Backs

  1. Ridge Runner
    5:18 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

    I think Rose will get less time as opposed to a true RB1 -being spelled by Smoke & others. More committee approach based on play specifics.

  2. dcforuk
    5:46 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

    Are you certain the following statement from this post is accurate? Do you have supporting data? I went to the MS St game. Snell seemed to break out for a chunk run at least once per game. You better hope the man who refers to himself in 3rd person does NOT read this post……especially if there is little to no supporting data. Perhaps there is, though. If there is, then I would like to see it because it sure did seem like Benny had many (chunk runs)!

    If he keeps that pace up in a larger sample size it would mean the Wildcats are getting plenty of chunk plays from their backs. Something that did not happen the last two seasons with Benny Snell

    • az1006
      5:55 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

      Benny did have some chunk runs, and pointing to the Mississippi State game is obvious. He was unstoppable in that one. But Benny’s one weakness has always been his short-burst speed (his 40-time is evidence of that). He was able to run through contact better than any back I’ve seen in a long time at Kentucky, but on edge runs he was more limited because he didn’t have the speed to break them. With more speed-oriented backs, I think we’ll see a more open playbook, as opposed to the between-the-tackles runs Benny was so good at.

  3. az1006
    5:50 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

    I love what Benny brought to the program, as we all should. But, I think this group of backs offers far more diversity than we’ve had the last couple of years. It was easy to lean on Benny for 20-30 carries per game, but his big-play ability was somewhat limited and it led to some sluggish offensive possessions. He was able to rack up yards because he rarely took a loss, but he also had a high number of carries to aid in that. With this group, I think you’ll see the carries be spread out a bit more, based on the down and distance, but I also think we’ll see more explosive plays than we saw with Benny. Again…Not a knock on him at all, he was just built to be more of a bruiser, and he ran that way.

  4. dcforuk
    6:39 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

    Benny’s (1) patience, (2) competitive fire, (3) vision and (4) strength combined together helped him overcome whatever is less from a speed perspective. Those four attributes actually helped him secure some chunk runs. You are correct that he did receive a significant amount of opportunities each game. Although I am very excited to see what AJ Rose can do, even though I am a Steelers fan, I would rather see Benny in blue and white than black and gold this fall ….

  5. UKinIN
    7:50 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

    Sliver or slither?

    • dcforuk
      8:26 pm August 1, 2019 Permalink

      That’s ok because I think the following at least once a day myself:

      “Why do I do and say the things that I don’t want to do and don’t want to say and why do I not do and not say the things that I want to do and want to say”

  6. samodamo
    10:56 am August 2, 2019 Permalink

    Rb I think will be fine, but I feel like everyone is sleeping on Rodriguez. They are all good but he’s going to be a good one. Imo