UK seek running back depth at start of season

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – If you had hoped for a few Chris Rodriguez clarity, mark stoops at least didn’t keep you waiting for Wednesday.

The question came early in Stoops’ press conference at Kentucky Football Media Day. And the Wildcats coach quickly avoided talking about his star running back, who trains with the team but whose playing availability has been uncertain this summer.

“I really have no comment on Chris’s status at this point,” Stoops said, a question in his kickoff media availability.

And that was it.

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But while no one was talking much about Rodriguez – who last month pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence — his presence was notable, such as it was.

He posed for a team photo in the stands at Kroger Field but was not made available for interviews. Stoops has declined – including last month at SEC Media Days – to comment on the playing status of the ball carrier.

But while no one had much to say about Rodriguez on Wednesday, running backs were a talking point.

Rodriguez is a crucial cog in Kentucky’s offense, coming off a junior season in which he carried 225 times for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns.

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But whether the Wildcats are looking for depth behind him or an indefinite replacement for him, the rest of the runners’ room plays a key role in preseason camp.

The Cats will have long eyes on a body that includes Kavosiey Smoke senior’s experience; upside down in redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright and juniors Mike Drennen and JuTahn McClain; and intrigue in senior transfer Ramon Jefferson.

“I like the group, but it’s not proven” freshman offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “That will be one of the big things to come out of this camp. We’ll see who wins the right and the ability to hit him the most. And I imagine it will be a bit per committee, no matter what.

Stoops said his staff feel “very good” about the running back group.

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Strong enough, apparently, for Kentucky not to feature Tennessee trades Dee Beckwith the. The 6ft 5in, 230lb transfer – who played both wide and running back for the Volunteers – is listed on the UK list at wide receiver and made talks with that group on Wednesday.

But Beckwith said he could play some tight ends, and he didn’t give up on the running back.

Kentucky's Kavosiey Smoke celebrates with Wan'Dale Robinson after scoring a touchdown against Tennessee on November 6, 2022. Smoke is among the British running backs who could see more opportunities depending on star Chris Rodriguez's playing status.

“They showed me clips of how they wanted to use me, how they wanted to get me out of lags, how I could win against smaller defensive backs,” Beckwith said. “I’m ready to take transfers, because I’m still comfortable with that from UT. Anything that can get me the ball, anything that can get us on the scoreboard, I’ll do it.

Drennen could also line up on the outside and said he’s not sure if Scangarello prefers him out of the backfield or in the slot, but said the coach knows he’s “very good at both. “.

This underscores Scangarello’s plan to involve a versatile pack of backs in new ways.

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Quarterback Will Levis completed 233 passes last season to 16 different players, but Rodriguez led running backs with 13 catches. McClain was second with six. No other running back has caught more than two.

Whoever sees time in the backfield this fall, the plan is to expand that part of the offense.

“I think involving them in the passing game as well will be something I look forward to,” Levis said. “I caught a lot of them in the spring, and I can’t wait to keep feeding them on the rock all over camp.

The competition for rock figures is fierce.

Rodriguez is “here with us every day,” Wright said. In that sense, he says, “nothing has really changed.” Still, there are opportunities as long as his status is up in the air.

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“Chris is in the room like anybody else,” McClain said. “Coach really wants us to compete, for everyone to be better. Whether Chris is there or not, we’re always going to do our thing and make it happen.

Scangarello’s hope is that no matter who’s on the field, the Cats’ back will make things happen. Rodriguez or not, he plans to give the running backs a lot to do in his room.

“They’re all a little bit different, that’s what we like,” Scangarello said. “We put people in situations to play to their strengths. And so we have road runners and pass catchers, we have thumpers and we have guys with some speed, guys who will crush you. So it’s a good group.

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