Over the last three seasons, the running back position has not been an issue for the Kentucky Wildcats. When you have the all-time leading rusher in school history in Benny Snell Jr., a player capable of handling any workload you throw at him, you never have to worry about that position.
With Snell off trying to reach his NFL dreams, the Kentucky coaching staff is now hoping they can replicate (or even come close to) his success with their latest stable of running backs.
The main group? Junior back AJ Rose leading the way, followed by redshirt freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez.
While it’d be silly to think we can replace arguably the best running back in school history, last night proved that the next crop of talent is still capable of doing some damage in 2019.
Between the three of them, the Kentucky running backs combined for a total of 33 carries for 289 yards and six touchdowns in Kentucky’s annual Spring Game. Smoke led the way with 132 yards and two scores on five carries, followed by Rose with 86 yards and three scores on 11 carries.
Rose was the finesse back, Rodriguez was the bruiser, and Smoke was an interesting mix of both.
After the game, Rose said that replacing Snell will be difficult, but he feels he can make a name for himself leading the way, as well.
“You know he’s going to be hard to replace, but I’m going to go out there and do me,” he said. “I’m going to try to bring as much to the table as I can and you know, hopefully break his record.”
Overall, Rose feels that their group of backs has the opportunity to provide a solid mix of quickness, power, and pass-catching out of the backfield.
“It’s pretty deep, we’ve got good backs with Kavosiey Smoke, Christopher Rodriguez and me,” he said. “Our running backs do a good job, we get that ball and we go. If we get a good push at the line and get past the second level, it’s curtains. I think you’ll see more of us catching the ball in the backfield too. We all have great hands and when Terry (Wilson) doesn’t see anything downfield he has to depend on us.”
On the night, Rose, Smoke, and Rodriguez combined for 28 yards on four receptions out of the backfield. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said he wants that to continue to be a point of emphasis going forward.
“I think we want to continue with (getting Smoke and Rodriguez receptions) and along with A.J. (Rose),” Stoops said. “A.J. is also very good, can catch the ball out of the backfield all those guys can do that and we want to continue to work on that and get the ball to them.”
When they utilize the running backs in passing situations, it opens the door home run opportunities down the field, and vice versa. They play off of each other and keeps the defense off-balance.
“And as we create shots in getting the ball down the field, you know, as we start seeking out under things, there’s going to be outlets there that we need to get the ball to them when we can,” Stoops continued. “The quarterback’s gotta be on time and deliver that football and those checkdowns and we can get good yardage on that.”
For Smoke, he wanted to show that he’s not just a bruising back. He’s certainly got strength and power, but as we saw on his 87-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, he’s capable of outrunning defenders, as well.
“I had to show them I had speed, instead of just power,” he said. “I feel like we were more explosive than the past, so everyone is just trying to work on their quickness. That’s the biggest thing this year.”
Kavosiey Smoke. Mercy. pic.twitter.com/eEbrw6wLji
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) April 12, 2019
Smoke said that he cut some weight during his redshirt season, allowing him to build speed and stamina.
“My biggest improvement is that I got leaner,” he said. “I lost a lot of weight, so it brings a lot more speed than where I was in the past. I think I got faster once I lost weight. I got awareness and a little more stamina.”
When asked about the competition in the backfield, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said that having talent like Smoke and Rodriguez nipping at Rose’s heels forces the junior back to give it his all every day in practice.
If he lets up even a little bit, Gran said the two backs behind Rose will snatch his playing time right away.
“Those two guys right there are guys that can help us win,” he said. “I’m really excited about them because it pushes AJ, makes him better every day. AJ needs to come to work every day or he’s going to get beat out, that’s the bottom line. Competition creates a wonderful atmosphere in the room.”
Four-star Kentucky running back signee Travis Tisdale will also be arriving this summer and is also expected to compete for playing time right away.
While Gran is confident in his current running back group, he’s always open to letting young talent come in and earn reps.
“Yeah, let them go, you know?” he said. “He’s going to be a little different, he’s a 10.6 (second) 100-meter guy. He’s going to give you that, I don’t know, the Boom Williams if you will. But he’s going to have that speed, and it’ll definitely be a change-up. I’m always going to let my freshmen come in and compete.”
For now, though, Smoke is pretty pleased with what his offense is working with in the backfield.
“Oh yeah, we’re a three-headed monster for sure,” Smoke said. “We’re coming. We’re going to bring it every game, every play. We’re going to bring it.”