Back on March 22, 2019, then-Bengals running backs coach Jemal Singleton traveled down I-75 South from Cincinnati to Lexington to watch former UK star Benny Snell work out during Kentucky’s Pro Day. He didn’t know much about the Kentucky football program at the time, but his first visit to campus had him intrigued.
Little did he know, he’d ultimately be named running backs coach at Kentucky just two short years later, a coaching change he feels will be the “easiest” he’s ever made.
“Two years ago I came down to Pro Day. I think Benny Snell was working out at that Pro Day, I came down and worked him out,” Singleton said Thursday morning. “I remember waking through these facilities, really didn’t realize Kentucky had what they had going on here. A lot of really good things that made me want to come down here. It’s going to be the easiest move I’ve ever made in coaching. Talking to Stoops, it was definitely something I wanted to come be a part of.”
So what was it about his trip to Lexington back in 2019 that stuck with him ever since, making this job such an intriguing one? He could see the NFL talent Mark Stoops and the UK staff had developed, the updated facilities, and above all else, the wins piling up.
It was a program that stuck out from the rest during his regular campus trips around the nation for Pro Day events.
“Coming down on the Pro Day, seeing the amount of players that were definitely NFL talent that he put together, and you don’t get that done if you’re not recruiting well, coaching well or doing things in the building,” Singleton said. “You look around at the facilities, and that’s one of the good things, I’ve traveled all over to different campuses to different Pro Days, and I was blown away what was going on here. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Kentucky football at that time. My eyes were definitely open at that point.
“You look at those things that the administration is doing, providing the facilities for the players, providing the outlets for them on social media, the recruiting aspect of it, the wins. The things (Stoops) has been able to do since he’s been here has been awesome. Being up the road, I actually live in Northern Kentucky, hearing a lot more about Kentucky football intrigued me even more.”
Now officially a part of the program, Singleton is thrilled to get his hands on the talented stable of running backs UK’s program has to offer and build them into NFL-caliber prospects for other coaches to scout and visit in the coming years.
“I got to see some of the guys in the room, got to watch them play in the bowl game and some other games, as well. That was an intriguing part of it, knowing the room is pretty solid,” the veteran coach added. “I’ve been fortunate in my career to be in some pretty good running back rooms, both in college and in the NFL. Seeing the traits this room has here was exciting. Can’t wait to work with these guys.”
As for future running backs he plans to recruit to Lexington and develop in the future, Singleton doesn’t have a go-to “type” of player. Instead, he looks for individual traits that separate one player from another, specifically in “short-area quickness.”
“What I look for in a running back? That’s probably one of the things I love most about this position, it comes in so many sizes and shapes,” the new UK assistant said. “I don’t care if you’re 5-9, I don’t care if you’re 6-1, you can be an effective running back and be explosive, do a lot of those things.
“Just in my career alone, look at my last stop. You’ve got Joe Mixon who is a 6-footer, big, strong guy. Then you’ve got Gio(vani) Bernard right behind him, and he’s a smaller, scattier-type back. It just depends on that type of player. There are some specific skillsets that I look for. Short-area quickness is huge, being able to make a guy miss or shake him is extremely important. It’s how you get those extra yards on a carry.
“When you ask, “What height do you look for?” or (anything like that), I don’t look for any of that. I just look at football ability and football movement. There isn’t one specific trait that lends itself to success than another.”
He likened the situation to another recent college standout and current NFL rookie, one who didn’t necessarily jump off the page with his measurables, but had so many special characteristics to his game that made him an intriguing pro prospect.
“I like to think of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, drafted in the first round to the Kansas City Chiefs,” Singleton said. “You want to base it off of his 40-time, you probably don’t touch him. He ran a 4.6-plus 40-time, but he can make a guy miss in a phone booth. That’s the part, how do you make guys miss and do you have the skill to do that? It comes in a lot of sizes and shapes.”
Between Snell, Chris Rodriguez, Stanley “Boom” Williams, AJ Rose, and Kavosiey Smoke, among numerous others, UK has had quite the variety of builds and playing styles in the running back room.
Expect that versatility to continue with Singleton on staff.