Monday afternoon, UK head coach Mark Stoops broke the news that redshirt sophomore running back Kavosiey Smoke would miss the next several weeks with a rib injury, leaving the Wildcats with just AJ Rose and Chris Rodriguez in their stable of core rotation backs.
With UK missing one piece of its three-headed monster in the backfield, will the coaching staff go all-in on the top options or rely on one of the team’s young up-and-coming playmakers in the running back room to take some pressure off of Rose and Rodriguez?
While the goal is for UK’s key running back standouts to split the reps in half, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran is “excited” about freshman back JuTahn McClain and redshirt freshman Travis Tisdale, adding that he’s “not afraid” to play either of them on Saturday when Mississippi State comes to town.
“I think [Rose and Rodriguez will take most of the reps],” Gran said. “You go into the game and see how they’re doing physically, always. I’m excited about those two youngins. I’m excited to see how they’re going to approach practice, approach learning the opponent and really understanding what the gameplan’s gonna be at the end of the week. I’m not afraid to put one them in, but you would definitely assume those two guys are going to be carrying most of the load for sure.
Gran’s praise for both players goes back to when they each signed with Kentucky out of high school and into the spring of their freshman seasons.
For Tisdale, the UK offensive coordinator compared him to former Wildcat star Boom Williams after joining the program.
“[Tisdale] brings just a little bit something different,” Gran said back in January 2019. “This guy’s a track guy. He’s probably a 10.6 [second in the 100-meter dash] kid. Reminds you a little bit of a Boom Williams home run-type hitter.”
And then this spring, McClain turned heads in a major way, with Gran praising the true freshman’s toughness.
“Whoa, I’m gonna tell you something: I’m impressed with that young man,” Gran said following Kentucky’s fourth practice of the 2020 spring season. “He is tough. He will stick his face in there and he does a great job in blitz protection. He is not afraid of anything.
“A little bit like Travis Tisdale, he’s got that burst. He’s very smooth, can catch the ball, so I think we got a really good one there. I’m excited about where he’s at right now already. You coach him one time and he gets it fixed.”
When asked about the possibility of McClain and Tisdale taking over relief duties at times with Smoke out, Rodriguez said he has confidence in both after seeing them work leading up to the season.
While he’s ready to take on whatever workload the UK coaching staff throws his way, he knows the young backs will be ready to contribute if they hear their names called.
“Of course, Smoke’s out, [they’re] the next backups,” Rodriguez said. “We all have our roles. JuTahn and Travis, they’ve been working their butts off every day since the season started. They might get some playing time this week.”