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.
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.
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.