Rodriguez Leads Impressive Group
Last time out we began our look at the 2021 Kentucky football team with the quarterback battle. For this edition we move to running back, where the Cats have arguably the top back and best group in the SEC. In addition we’ll look at a receiving corps who got a major upgrade through the transfer portal. We start our 2021 Kentucky Backs and Receivers Preview with the big man on campus.
New running backs coach John Settle has to be thrilled with the situation in Lexington. As someone who’s coached and developed some big times players at Wisconsin, he now has the chance to do it in the SEC. Kentucky went into 2020 with one of the best running back groups in the league. 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. As a result the Cats failed to have a 1,000 yard rusher for the first time since 2015.
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. New offensive coordinator Liam 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 backs a great deal. On paper, it looks like he’s in store for a big year. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranks C-Rod as the highest graded returnee in the SEC.
Highest-graded returning SEC players:
1. Chris Rodriguez Jr/RB/UK: 92.4
2. Darian Kinnard/OT/UK: 91.5
3. Matt Corral/QB/Miss: 90.5
4. Jerrion Ealy/RB/Miss: 88.6
5. JT Daniels/QB/UGA: 88.3
5. DeMarvin Leal/DT/A&M: 88.3 pic.twitter.com/wFisrVqw8y
— PFF College (@PFF_College) June 7, 2021
Rodriguez is on the pre-season watch list for both the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards. Despite that, he only managed to make third team All-SEC at the recently completed media days. Just more fuel for the fire for the perennially underrated Kentucky Wildcats.
Plenty Of Running Back Options
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.
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. 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.
Continuing on with our 2021 Kentucky Backs and Receivers preview we move to the receivers where the Cats are expecting better production.
A Huge Pick Up
In 2018 Wan’Dale Robinson made the Big Blue Nation happy by staying home to play for the Cats. However, shortly after his commitment, Mr. Football changed his mind ending up in Nebraska. Following two years in Lincoln Robinson decided to head back home.
never felt so good to be home, happy to be a wildcat 💙😼 pic.twitter.com/1SsjNCVfd4
— Wan’Dale Robinson (@wanda1erobinson) April 17, 2021
During his time at Nebraska, Robinson hauled in 91 passes for 914 yards and three touchdowns. He did it all for the Cornhuskers as he ran for another 580 yards and four more scores. He gives the Cats a home run threat anytime he touches that ball. As we’ve already mentioned the Cats have one of the best running back groups in the SEC. That means Robinson can concentrate on playing receiver in Liam Coen’s new offense.
One More Year
Coen’s offense got a huge boost when Josh Ali decided to return for one more year. Taking advantage of the NCAA allowing an extra season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ali brings much-needed stability. Following a 23 reception season in 2019, the senior hauled in 53 passes last year for 473 yards and a touchdown. The combination gives the Cats their best receiving duo in many years. In fact, the last time Kentucky had two receivers with more than 50 receptions was 2010 when Randall Cobb had 84 and Chris Matthews 61. With a more wide-open offense that’s a definite possibility in 2021.
Looking For A Third Receiving Option
While Robinson and Ali are the top two options, Coen needs a third man to step up. Fortunately they’ve got several options. However one of them, Clevan Thomas, is out for the season with a torn ACL. One player the Cats feel is ready to more forward is Isaiah Epps. He’s battled injuries while in Lexington but did haul in eight passes a year ago. However, his speed has impressed Coen so far. Another name is a sophomore Michael Drennen II who hauled in three passes for 26 yards. In addition another name the BBN needs to know is Michigan State transfer Tre’von Morgan. At six foot seven Morgan only caught two passes as a freshman. Nevertheless, he averaged 23 yards per catch with one going for a touchdown. Sophomre Tae Tae Crumes and true freshman Chris Lewis are two other options. The pieces are there however the Cats just need someone to step up.
We finish off our 2021 Kentucky Backs And Receivers Preview with a look at the tight ends, where Vince Marrow’s group suffered a big loss recently.
A Big Loss
Junior Keaton Upshaw was second on the team in receptions a year ago with 16 for 198 yards. In addition, he had three touchdowns. However, the junior suffered a torn pectoral muscle while working out and could miss the entire 2021 season. That leaves Justin Rigg as the major pass catching threat. He’s another player taking advantage of the extra season from the NCAA. With Upshaw out look for Brenden Bates to step up. Even before the injury many around the program thought this could be Bates’ breakthrough year. Two other options are wide receiver Izayah Cummings who could easily slide over to the tight end and true freshman Jordan Dingle.
More Exciting Brand Of Football
Over the last three years Kentucky’s averaged 132 yards passing per game. A season ago they attempted 22 passes a game, the worst number in the SEC. While Kentucky’s having unprecented success over the last five years, it’s not exactly the pinball like offense that you see in many places around the country. A big factor in hiring Coen is a more contemporary offense. With one of the best rushing attacks in the SEC, the Cats aren’t ever abandoning the running game. Although, 2021 should see much more of a balance between the run and pass. A big season from Rodriguez and some big plays from the receivers and 2021 has the makings of a special season.
Thanks for checking out our 2021 Kentucky Backs and Receivers Preview here at Last Word On College Football. Next time out we look at the offensive and defensive lines.