Cats' crowded backfield seen as a strength

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

University of Kentucky running back A.J. Rose runs for yardage during the Wildcats' 28-7 win over Mississippi State on Sept. 22, 2018, in Lexington.

With at least three players ready to step up and assume duties in the University of Kentucky backfield, the Wildcats' running back stable is no longer the one-horse show that it once was.

While junior A.J. Rose returns as the team's most prominent and experienced running back, redshirt freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez garnered attention this past offseason as potential threats in UK's rushing attack. Though the Wildcats primarily relied on Benny Snell to lead the way last season, UK coaches are prepared to enter the 2019 campaign with a more group-oriented approach.

And according to the Cats' running backs, that's just fine by them.

"Like (offensive coordinator Eddie Gran) says, it's running back by committee," Rose said. "We're all gonna do our job and when the time comes, whoever gets the ball at that time is gonna do their job. Our main goal is to win. Whatever it takes to win, we're gonna do that.

"Yeah, I'm a starter, but if somebody's playing better than me, somebody's doing better, the best man's gonna play."

Rose, a 6-foot-1, 218-pounder from Cleveland, appeared in all 13 games last season as the Cats' No. 2 back. He recorded 442 yards and five touchdowns on 71 carries, with a career-best performance coming in the regular-season finale against Louisville when he rushed for 112 yards and a TD on just 10 carries.

Now, Rose is ready for a breakout season of his own.

"They saw a glimpse last year," he said. "You'll get a chance to see me full time this year.

"I'm hungry. Every time I touch it, I want to score. I want to do something with it. I don't want no negative plays. I don't want to get tackled by one person. I wanna go out there and compete every rep. You're gonna see a competitor, a grinder, something close to Benny Snell but not Benny Snell. I'm gonna be A.J. Rose."

Smoke, meanwhile, appeared in two games last season before being redshirted, but the 5-9, 220-pounder exploded onto the scene in UK's Blue-White spring game earlier this year when he rushed for 132 yards and two TDs on just five carries.

He feels even better about his chances of contributing following a summer of hard work.

"This year, I gained some speed," said Smoke, a former three-star recruit from Wetumpka, Alabama. "Last year, I was kind of heavyset. I had a little fat on me. I trimmed down. ... I feel like I'm light on my feet. I can get north and south easy. I'm ready to ball."

Just like Rose, though, Smoke supports UK's offensive approach.

"We've got three running backs that can carry the load," he said. "For me, I feel like I can bring a lot of juice to the running back field and help build on my characteristics, help my other teammates and basically just be a good leader."

It wasn't always like that for Smoke, though.

"Last year, I struggled a lot with the plays and getting everything down pat," he admitted, "so I try to help (the younger players). Me and Chris (Rodriguez) push them so much so they can be better next year and help them grow as a player, too."

Rodriguez also playing sparingly last season but recorded 71 yards and a TD on 17 rushing attempts in the Blue-White scrimmage. Since entering the program together, he and Smoke have formed a close bond.

"Me and Chris became close as soon as we met each other," Smoke said. "We're freshmen, we're from the south, man, we gotta be cool. Me and Chris talk all the time. All the running backs are cool. We've got a cool connection in the backfield, so it's great."

Involving the running backs in the passing game with junior quarterback Terry Wilson will also be a major emphasis in 2019, which leaves the door open for even more opportunities for the trio. Even freshman Travis Tisdale has a chance to get in on the action.

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran says the team will likely just go with the hot hand.

"If one gets on a roll, you let him go," Gran said. "It's just that confidence in terms of projection. Everything that we need them to do in the pass game, if they can do that, they'll probably play."

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