We are less than two weeks away from SEC Media Days when media members from all over the region and beyond head to The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala., to talk ball. While there, one of the league’s top players will be slept on.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. is a former low three-star recruit out of Metro Atlanta who emerged as one of college football’s most efficient players last season. The 224-pound bowling ball led the Wildcats in rushing yards (785) and rushing touchdowns (11) while averaging 6.6 yards per rush. However, the raw numbers do not tell the entire story.
In 119 carries, Rodriguez posted a 65.55 percent success rate, 14.29 percent big-play rate, and a 4.20 percent stuff rate. What exactly do these metrics mean? Well, success rate measures if a play stays ahead of the chains, a big play is any run of 10-plus yards, and stuff rate is a run play stopped for no gain or a loss. While Rodriguez is not the most explosive rusher, no one in college football was more efficient in 2020.
As the numbers show, Rodriguez’s success rate numbers are on another level compared to other notable tailbacks returning in 2021. While not super explosive, the redshirt junior has produced enough big plays while taking nearly no bad ones. Phil Steele preseason All-Americans Breece Hall and Bijan Robinson have lesser numbers while Hall does have a much larger sample size. Projected first-team All-SEC backs — Tank Bigsby and Isaiah Spiller — also fall short of Rodriguez.
Over at PFF, Rodriguez has graded out well. The tailback had an overall grade of 92.4 in 262 snaps last season, and that only trailed North Carolina’s Javonte Williams who was a second-round pick of the Denver Broncos after rushing for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns last fall. Despite all of this, Rodriguez is not regarded as one of the best backs in college football.
However, all signs in Lexington point to the tailback having a monster season. The addition of Dare Rosenthal now gives the Big Blue Wall another quality starter and a group that could have a legit shot at winning the Joe Moore Award. Thanks to personnel, the tight ends should be heavily involved in formations with 12 personnel — one running back, two tight ends — being used frequently giving the offense more punch at the point of attack. Meanwhile, the installation of the wide zone concepts Liam Coen is bringing from Sean McVay’s playbook should allow Kentucky to become more explosive on the ground. However, some of the inside power stuff is not going away. South Carolina’s Kevin Harris had a monster season in 2020 on duo run concepts that require an inside double team behind Eric Wolford’s offensive line. This is something Kentucky could excel at with Rodriguez. Coen is not shying away from allowing Rodriguez to be a workhorse for the offense.
“It’s my job and our job as an offensive staff to find different ways for him to touch the football, as opposed to turning around and giving him the ball,” Coen told reporters during spring practice. “That’s something that’s new, being able to free-release from the backfield and catch the football. It would be hard for me to say right now how many touches a game each guy would like to get, but I do know we want to try to get Chris over 25 touches a game for sure.”
That gets us to the million-dollar question: Can Rodriguez set the single-season rushing record at Kentucky?
In 1995, Williams rushed for 1,600 yards for head coach Bill Curry while averaging 5.1 yards per rush and scoring 17 touchdowns. The Wildcats finished the year 4-7 but did own a home win over LSU. Despite Benny Snell Jr. claiming just about every other program rushing record, the Ohio native could not break the single-season mark set by Williams. Could Rodriguez be the one to snap the mark this season?
Now let’s do some math.
Kentucky should play 13 games this season counting a bowl game appearance. If Rodriguez averages 20 carries per game, that equals 260 carries for a season if the running back remains healthy. Snell reached this threshold twice so it is quite possible for a Kentucky back to get to this number. For his career, Rodriguez has averaged 7.09 yards per rush in 192 career attempts. For this exercise, let’s be conservative and assume Rodriguez averages 6.0 yards per attempt while getting a legit RB 1 workload. Meanwhile, we’ll drop his career touchdown rate to 7 percent after being at 8.85 percent for his career.
Projected 2021 stat line: 260 carries, 1,560 yards, 18 touchdowns
As you can see, this will be a tough number to crack. However, the data tells us that Rodriguez has been an efficiency monster throughout his career in Lexington. The tailback could be the one to snap this streak but it won’t be easy.
This will be a tall task, but under Coen, Rodriguez will get the touches required to make a legitimate run at the crown. Not getting the ball to the top running back should not be a complaint at Kroger Field this fall.