The 2020 college football season is up and running and it figures to be a crazy one. Week Three will act as a final appetizer before we dig into the meat and potatoes when the SEC kicks off next weekend. Kentucky enters this season with one of the best rosters in program history and they’ll be looking to cash in with a strong season as they return a boatload of production. Now we’ll help you start getting ready for the year by breaking down each spot. Kentucky returns 2,084 rushing yards to its running backs room from last season and this position may just have the most depth in the SEC.
Leader in the Room
Redshirt senior #10 A.J. Rose enters his final season in Lexington with 1,305 career rushing yards and that ranks 26th overall in program history. The Cleveland native and former low three-star prospect needs just 465 yards to pass Marc Logan in order to crack the program’s top ten. It’s been a slow climb after not getting much work his first two seasons, but he is starting to become Mr. Reliable for the program.
Rose is fresh off solid back-t0-back seasons where he rushed for 1,268 yards while averaging a healthy 5.76 yards per carry. Last year he proved he could durable by posting over 100 carries for the first time in his career, but at the end of the day he is known for his big play ability.
Rose is a one-cut runner who was a little bit of wiggle, but can explode to top gear when he sticks his lead foot in the ground to get north/south. The vet has 18 rushes of 20-plus yards in the last two seasons and that is what he’ll provide the offense. With Terry Wilson back, Rose could help provide more efficiency by being an effective pass catcher out of the backfield
After fumbling twice in the season opening win over Toledo, it was pretty evident that #24 Christopher Rodriguez Jr. was in the doghouse to begin his redshirt freshman season. But perhaps no other player benefitted more from UK going all in on Bowden Ball than the back that people were calling “Baby Benny.”
The former low three-star recruit from the Atlanta metro area rushed for 384 yards in the month of November while scoring four touchdowns and averaging 9.14 yards per carry. The young back became the offense’s most efficient option who also provided plenty of chunk plays with seven runs of 20-plus yards in just 71 carries. There were definitely some very promising signs and he’s a candidate to have a breakout season this fall.
#20 Kavosiey Smoke was the star of Kentucky’s offense in the first three games as the redshirt freshman and former mid three-star recruit from Alabama rushed for 251 yards and averaged 7.38 yards per carry while scoring two touchdowns. After that, however, the explosive back came crashing down to earth as he put up just 148 yards while averaging 4.23 yards per carry in the next five games while battling some issues with concussions.
Smoke then responded with 268 yards following UK’s second bye with a 7.44 yards per carry average to close out the season in November. It was a roller coaster ride for the young back and 2020 will be all about trying to find more consistency and less peaks and valleys.
#33 Travis Tisdale was a high three-star prospect in the class of 2019 and was UK’s highest rated running back recruit since Boom Williams in 2014. He drew many comparisons to the program’s eighth all-time rusher. Tisdale redshirted in 2019, but we were able to see some burst in his limited playing time. Don’t be surprised in he factors into the kick return team this fall.
Tisdale didn’t remain UK’s highest rated running back recruit for long as Fairfield, Ohio native #23 JuTahn McClain came in as the eighth highest ranked recruit in Kentucky’s hyped up 2020 class. McClain ran for over 4,000 yards while averaging north of eight yards per carry in his prep career and he has the coaching staff singing his praises early.
“The old adage is the eye in the sky doesn’t lie. He doesn’t. You watch tape everyday you look at effort. You look at straining. You look at mental errors and that young man doesn’t have ’em. I feel very comfortable putting him in the game,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran.
Preseason accolades have been plentiful for the Kentucky offensive line who is affectionately referred to as the “Big Blue Wall.” Running behind the top offensive line in the SEC are a trio of running backs that return for 2020 after collectively gaining 1,975 yards and averaging 6.4 yards per carry.
The group is led by A.J. Rose. The 6’1, 214-pound senior rushed for 826 yards and 6 touchdowns a year ago. Joining Rose are a pair of redshirt sophomores that are talented enough to be feature backs. Chris Rodriguez Jr. (5’11, 224) gained 533 yards while averaging 7.1 yards per carry in 2019. Rodriguez Jr. found pay dirt on six occasions. Commonly referred to as “Mini-Benny”, Rodriguez’s physical running style reminds the Big Blue Nation of the school’s all-time leading rusher Benny Snell.
Kavosiey Smoke averaged 6.1 yards per carry in 2019 after rushing for 616 yards and 6 touchdowns. The 5’9, 201-pound redshirt sophomore is shifty and has increased his speed in the offseason.
Joining the threesome of returning RB’s are two freshmen that Coach Eddie Gran has praised during preseason camp. JuTahn McClain is a 5’9, 187-pound speedster that rushed for 4 406 yards and 53 touchdowns in high school. Redshirt freshman Travis Tisdale (5’9, 173) is shifty and possesses explosive speed. McClain and Tisdale present the perfect change of pace from the power rushing attack that has been the staple of Eddie Gran’s offense.
With the three returners and two rookies, Kentucky has the most talented collection of running backs since the Jerry Claiborne era in the 1980’s.
Biggest Question Mark
Let’s face it, Kentucky has a lot more answers than questions. No running back room in college football returns more production than the one in Lexington and the Wildcats are adding two players to the mix that were the highest ranked recruits of the bunch. Eddie Gran has plenty of options.
However, there are going to be a lot of mouths to feed with only so many bites to go around. With the passing game returning to Lexington, you are looking at around 35 rushing attempts per game and a handful of those will go to the quarterback. Just how will Eddie Gran manage the rotation?
Redshirt senior A.J. Rose will obviously get the first crack, but getting the rest of the group involved will be something to follow closely. Playing just 10 games, a fumble early could get you in a doghouse that is not easy to climb out of due to the sheer depth of the position.
One Bold Prediction
“JuTahn McClain will be a top three back by the end of the season.”
When looking for a modern day tailback, you’re really trying to find a player with McClain’s skill set. On his high school tape, the young back showed great patience on inside runs while flashing speed once breaking through the initial wave. He has the ability to effect the game as a pass catcher and is hitting all of the pass protection checkpoints in camp. He’ll be a bonafide contributor come November.