New Coach Leads A Strong Group
Last time out here at Last Word On College Football we looked at the players vying to replace Terry Wilson at quarterback. This time we move to the running backs where the Cats have arguably the best unit in the conference. From an All-SEC caliber player to guys looking for playing time let’s take it all in with our Kentucky Spring Preview: Running Backs. However, before we get into the players we have to look at the new man leading the squad.
Match Made In Heaven?
When Mark Stoops relieved Eddie Gran of offensive coordinator duties at the end of 2020 that meant he was in the market for a new running backs coach as well. He found the guy just up Interstate 75 in Jemal Singleton who coached with the Cincinnati Bengals. Unfortunately, after less than a month on the job, Singleton went back to the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Stoops found his man in Wisconsin’s John Settle. Some considered Settle leaving for Lexington a surprise however he said it was a job “too good to pass up.” Of course, when you think of running the football in the Big 10 the first school that usually comes up is the Badgers. Settle served two tours in Madison first from 2006-2010 and then again from 2015-2020. He’d been a key piece in developing some of the great Wisconsin backs. Most notably Montee Ball and James White during his first term and Jonathan Taylor recently. You may remember Taylor ran for over 6,000 yards and won the Doak Walker Award twice. The coach of the best running team in the Big 10 working with one of the best in the SEC certainly seems like a perfect match.
Now that we’ve introduced you to the new coach let’s start our Kentucky Spring Preview: Running Backs with the big man in the backfield.
An All-SEC Candidate
Kentucky went into 2020 with one of the best running back groups in the SEC. However, Christopher Rodriguez missed a couple of games due to COVID issues. In addition, Kavosiey Smoke was limited to only 47 rushes due to injuries. That left A.J. Rose as the only back who appeared in all 11 games. As a result, the Cats failed to have a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time since 2015. Rose is trying for the NFL leaving Rodriguez as the main man for new offensive coordinator Liam Coen.
Despite missing two games the junior still led the Cats in rushing with 785 yards and 11 touchdowns, which ranked fourth in the SEC. Furthermore, he led the conference with a robust 6.6 yards per carry. Coen says Rodriguez needs at least 25 touches per game, something that makes the Big Blue Nation smile. It may not all be running the ball as the Rams threw to their wide receivers a great deal. On paper, it looks like a big season in store for him. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranks C-Rod as the best returnee in college football.
Top RBs returning in College Football⚡️ pic.twitter.com/bbStDZECxw
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 15, 2021
We talked briefly about Smoke who had an injury-plagued 2020. However, look for the junior to give Rodriguez some breaks as a change of pace back. Two seasons ago Smoke ran for 606 yards and six touchdowns. The combination of the two may be the best in the SEC this season.
As we continue our Kentucky Spring Preview: Running Backs let’s look at three other guys who can provide help when needed.
Pushing For Playing Time
The next player up in the Wildcat running back room is sophomore JuThan McClain, a former four-star player out of Fairfield, Ohio. In limited time last season McClain ran for 62 yards on 16 carries with a high of 23 in the blowout win over Tennessee. As a high school senior he rushed for 1,947 yards and 21 scores. As a result, he won Ohio player of the year and first-team all-offense on the Division I All-Ohio Team.
Along with McClain the Cats also have Travis Tisdale, another four-star player from the state of Georgia. In 2019 as a true freshman, Tisdale ran for 60 yards on four carries against Tennessee-Martin. Last year he saw action in seven games with six carries for 21 yards.
As if the running back room wasn’t talented enough they added freshman La’Vell Wright out of North Hardin high school. He comes to Kentucky as a three-star player who ranked as the 12th best all-purpose back by Rivals and sixth-best player overall in Kentucky. He was a four-year starter who ran for 4,396 yards and 56 touchdowns for the Trojans. In addition, he had 1,260 yards receiving and six more scores.
A Big Year Upcoming
Even with Coen’s new pro-style offense look for Kentucky to continue to run the ball a great deal. They have an All-SEC performer in Rodriguez. Behind him, Smoke, McClain, and Tisdale combine to make arguably the best group in the league. It’s no wonder the BBN can’t wait for the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe on September 4th.
Thanks for checking out our Kentucky Spring Preview: Running Backs here at Last Word On College Football. Next time out we’ll look at the receivers group who got a big upgrade thanks to the transfer portal.