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2020 Roster Outlook: Running Backs

We’ve touched on quarterbacks, but now it’s time to slide over to the backs and discuss the offensive coordinator’s position. Kentucky has now had a 1,000-yard rusher every season under Eddie Gran, but in 2019 it wasn’t a tailback. Despite that, UK’s three-man platoon at running back posted some really impressive numbers.

The ceiling is high for this group entering the fall.


Every back that recorded a carry last season will be on the roster after A.J. Rose’s recent announcement that he will return for his redshirt senior season. The Cleveland native and former three-star prospect has 1,295 career rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. The big play back needs just 475 yards to crack the top-10 of UK’s career rushing list and will be much more utilized in the passing game with the return of the forward pass. Rose reeled in seven receptions in Terry Wilson’s two starts last season and he could make a huge impact in the passing game.

Kavosiey Smoke bursted onto the scene with 251 yards and two touchdowns in his first three games while averaging 7.38 yards per carry when Kentucky was running a traditional offense. Many thought Smoke was the best back on the team and heading towards a monster season, but then the freshman wall hit. After not playing much in the South Carolina game, Smoke would only rush for 91 yards in the next five games and just did not seem like the same back. After the bye week, he seemed to have found that burst he had at the beginning of the season with 268 yards on 35 carries with two touchdowns and a 7.66 yards per carry average in the last three regular season games. For the Alabama native, it will be all about becoming more durable and consistent heading into his redshirt sophomore season.

Many expected Christopher Rodriguez Jr. to be among the rotation at running back in 2019, but fumble issues in the season-opener had him in the doghouse for a very long time. After getting some light work in the middle of the season, Rodriguez became a major contributor in the final four regular season games and he posted some gaudy numbers. The Georgia native put up 384 yards on 42 attempts with a staggering 9.14 yards per carry. The big back had 100-yard games against Vanderbilt and Louisville while he proved to be good short-yardage option, but also some who had enough speed to cash in with open field opportunities.

Travis Tisdale was one of the more hyped up recruits in the 2019 class and the high three-star from Valdosta, Georgia was able to redshirt. He flashed some of that big play burst we were told about in the win over UT Martin and I would suspect that he returns kickoffs for the Wildcats in 2020.


Thanks to the current roster balance, running back was not a huge necessity in the 2020 class but it is a spot that you need to recruit every year. In the most recent cycle, the staff went up to Ohio once again and found a back with patience, big play burst and pass catching ability.

JuTahn McClain was a high three-star recruit from Fairfield, Ohio just outside of Cincinnati who pledged to Kentucky over the summer after receiving interest from Penn State, Minnesota, Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State and Missouri. The patient runner had 1,947 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns in addition to being a very capable pass catcher.

Eddie Gran has a loaded running back room so it’s very likely that the early enrollee redshirts, but never say never. Running back can also be dealt attrition and that was something UK was able to avoid last season. McClain has the skills to make a positive impact right away if he’s able to transition to the speed and physicality of the college game.

Immediate Future

Thanks to return of A.J. Rose and the proven youth currently on the roster, Kentucky’s running back room is in a very good spot entering 2020. Eddie Gran’s position is the one of the only groups on the roster that does not have a composite four-star prospect in the fold, but what they do have is a lot of proven pieces.

Rose will enter spring ball as the starter who should give Kentucky a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield and a guy who will climb the charts before leaving Lexington after five seasons. Christopher Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke appear to be the future of the position and each are going to attempt to build after very strong freshman campaigns. Rodriguez will like to prove that the run to end the season was not a fluke and that he can develop into a bell cow back who can record a 1,000 yard season while Smoke will try to improved his durability and give UK that game breaking ability on a weekly basis. This is a very strong trio to start with.

Off the bench, both JuTahn McClain and Travis Tisdale will be looking to crack the rotation. Due to the potential for injury with the position, you need to always have four backs ready to go and the two young guys will be competing for that last spot. Each brings some home run ability to the offense and could both impact the return game. UK is currently pretty spoiled in the backfield.

How Eddie Gran manages the touches at tailback will be the biggest thing to follow. There are plenty of options for Kentucky entering the year and that is a very good thing. UK has experience, depth and roster balance. That is always needed at running back and not many teams in college football will enter the year with a better situation than Kentucky.

Article written by Adam Luckett

Twitter: @AdamLuckettKSR

7 Comments for 2020 Roster Outlook: Running Backs

  1. JASUN74
    6:45 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

    Guys I’m so sad Football season is over. Lol. I think the next few years of Kentucky Football will be the best years in our history, I honestly do. We’ve got more overall talent than we’ve ever had here and we’ve got a few players can absolutely take off an become stars.

    Our Offense will be the best it’s been since Woodson was throwing the ball and the special teams will be on par with any of the best in the country. Now our Defense!! Wow!! We’re absolutely Loaded at every position and it’s going to be hard for some of the younger 4 stars to even get time. Haha. I’ve said the same thing the last few years about being as excited as I’ve ever been about our program, this year takes it up a couple notches and it’s going to be a wild ride.

    We’ve got the best staff in the country at developing young talent and they’ve become great in game coaches as well. It’s night and day here now compared to a few years ago and Kentucky is getting better every single day. It’s simply amazing what Mark Stoops and these Coaches have done here so far and it’s just the start though of what’s turning into a top ten program in the country year in and year out.

    To say I’m excited is a huge understatement, I’m so proud of everyone involved into making this program one we can be proud of. They’ve done it right way and built a program to stand up for years ahead and it’s incredible what’s happening in Lexington Kentucky!! I’ve loved Kentucky Football since I was 7 or 8 years old and remember crying when we would lose. Haha. Well, I still may cry if we lose one, but at least we have a chance now to win every game we play. That’s Crazy!! Woooo. Go Cats!

    • 4everUKBlue
      9:16 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

      Yeah I can’t believe I’m excited about Kentucky football, never thought I’d say that but I am.

    • Miller45
      10:40 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

      The hype train can be a dangerous ride for both the fans and anyone around the program, i really hope they can get on the grind and tune out the noise.
      But yes it’s exciting, my family and I can’t wait. It has always seemed like we have had either a solid defense, or solid offense and it looks like there is a real chance of being able to put both units on the field in the same season

  2. ClutchCargo
    8:52 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

    You must have done an awful lot of crying over the years. lol I’m right there with you, though, as far as being excited. I’ll be like a little kid on Christmas Eve waiting for those season tickets to show up.

  3. WKY Cat
    9:46 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

    I’m very surprised with the offensive linemen we have recruited and how well they have played that a 4 star running back doesn’t want to run behind them.

    • michaelb
      11:23 pm January 20, 2020 Permalink

      All that’s bout to change for the good

  4. satcheluk
    7:34 am January 21, 2020 Permalink

    Adam-great article. I appreciate your insight and level of detail. FYI “bursted” is not a word in the English language.