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When Mark Stoops sought out a new coordinator to revitalize the Kentucky offense, he was sold on Liam Coen, not by simply his experience with exceptional passing offenses, but how the L.A. Rams moved the ball by “marrying the run and the pass.” The passing offense will get a shot in the arm while still leaning on the strength of the team, its running backs behind a Big Blue Wall.
The Bell Cow: Chris Rodriguez
Of all the passing game problems, the offense’s greatest injustice in 2020 was limiting Chris Rodriguez to only 13.2 carries per game, with a season-high of just 20 against Georgia. He was not tackled for a loss in the regular season and averaged an SEC high 6.6 yards per carry. One of the most efficient rushers in all of college football, Pro Football Focus awarded Rodriguez with Second Team All-American honors.
Initially referred to by many fans as “Mini-Benny” for his bruising style, Rodriguez is more than a power back. He had nine rushes of 20 yards or more, ranking in the top 25 nationally and trailing only South Carolina’s Kevin Harris in the SEC. Against the Gamecocks he had a 79-yard touchdown, the longest run of his career.
Rodriguez has added a new element to his game. On the first play of Saturday’s open practice, Rodriguez picked up a first down… through the air. He snagged a dart on a wheel route going down the seam on a beautifully executed play that Rodriguez would not have been able to make this time a year ago.
“First time we split Chris out, he was kind of out of his territory,” running backs coach John Settle laughed Tuesday evening. “He’s not used to being spread out like that, but after 15 practices he got better and better, catching the ball at different angles. running different routes and that type of thing. This camp he’s picked up where he left off.”
#0 Kavosiey Smoke: Arguably the most explosive athlete in the room… when he’s healthy. Smoke averaged 6.1 ypc., had 7 runs of 20+ yards and a 70-yard touchdown in his first season of significant action in 2019. Production dipped dramatically when injuries limited the Wetumpka, Al. native to just 47 attempts in seven games last season. Absent from part of the first five practices, if he doesn’t get healthy there are others ready to pass him on the depth chart.
#17 JuTahn McClain: Pronounced “juh-TAWN,” he put up gaudy numbers as a prep prospect out of Cincinnati’s Fairfield High School. In three years he rushed for 4,406 yards and 53 touchdowns while catching 48 passes for 680 yards and seven scores. After playing in all 11 games as a true freshman, McClain is one of the most impressive young players on the Wildcats’ offense.
“Just absolutely love the kid. He’s the type of kid that just wants to do everything right,” said offensive coordinator Liam Coen. “He’s extremely diverse in his skillset, in his toolbox. He can split out wide, catch the football, in the backfield run the ball, catch it from the backfield — he can just do so many different things and he’s a smart football player. That’s what really allows us to be able to do some of those things is the kid putting the work in and his overall football IQ and knowledge is really sharp.”
#33 Travis Tisdale: A four-star recruit out of Valdosta, Ga. powerhouse Lowndes, Tisdale fits the scat-back role. Incredibly quick in open space, you could see the redshirt sophomore run jet sweeps and field kickoff returns this fall.
#26 Torrance Davis: When you see Davis run the ball, you might experience some Benny Snell deja vu. A big, 6-foot-2, 220-pound athlete from Cleveland, Davis provided depth at linebacker as a true freshman before moving to offense in the spring.
#5 Michael Drennen: The move from wide receiver was one of the biggest surprised of the preseason. The highly-ranked all-purpose back has taken to it well and could give the room some juice in the passing game.
#29 La’Vell Wright: A graduate from North Hardin High School in December, it took very little time for Wright to impress Coen. A consummate student of the game, you won’t find him without his playbook. He wowed the BBN with an improbable reception that set up a game-winning field goal in the dramatic season-opening victory over Frederick Douglass. A guy that can do it all, the true freshman could make his way through the crowded room to receive snaps this fall.
WATCH: Play of the night was the ending of the Douglass vs. North Hardin game. @UKFootball commit La’vell Wright (@lavell3421) turns nothing into a 15ish yard gain to set up the winning field goal as time expires. @KYHighFootball @FBCoachThompson @M_Lunz_II @Jordan_Lovett1 pic.twitter.com/jyKgH5z34A
— Bryan Kennedy (@BKennedyTV) September 12, 2020
New Scheme on the Ground
Kentucky ranks 25th nationally over the last two years in explosive run rate while seeing the 20th-most amount of “loaded” 8+ man boxes in that same time span. Eddie Gran essentially said, “Know matter what defenses do, we’re going to run the ball down your throat.” That will not be the case this fall.
The Wildcats primarily stuck to an inside zone scheme, rushing between the tackles time and time again. The inside zone will still be an option, but they’ll lean more heavily on an outside zone that attacks the defense horizontally to create cut-back rushing lanes. This plays to the strengths of the rushers and should create more explosive plays, but if you guess wrong against a blitz, the outside zone is susceptible to more tackles for loss.
Wrinkles Through the Air
Kentucky is deep at running back and tight end, but not so much at wide receiver. To mitigate that problem running backs and tight ends will be catching more passes. The running backs prepared by each catching over 1,000 footballs this summer.
To spread the love, you’ll see more 22 personnel (two tight ends and two running backs) with players like JuTahn McClain and Kavosiey Smoke motioning in and out of the backfield to confuse defenses and create mismatches.
Something You Didn’t Know
There are plenty of fresh faces in the group. Michael Drennen and Torrance Davis played different positions last season, wide receiver and linebacker, respectively. Smoke looks different too, shedding the deuce to become the first Wildcat to wear No. 0.
Biggest Question Mark
“How will the carries be distributed?”
One of the first things Liam Coen said after accepting the job was, “Chris Rodriguez needs to touch the ball as many times as possible.” The key word is “touch” rather than “carry.” Coen wants to get Rodriguez the ball in a variety of ways, but Rodriguez alone cannot carry the load.
The competition to be the next man up will be fierce. McClain has made a strong case early in camp, putting pressure on Smoke. In the new offense there are more opportunities to get the ball in the talented running backs’ hands. The question is how often will they lean on others and how will John Settle develop a rotation among the 4-5 guys behind Rodriguez?
One Bold Prediction
“Chris Rodriguez will break Moe Williams’ single-season rushing record.”
Benny Snell broke almost every school rushing record at Kentucky except for one. The 1,600 single-season record set by Moe Williams in 1995 remains untouched. Unlike Snell, Rodriguez does not have two years of extensive wear and tear on his body from a heavy workload. Adam Luckett crunched the numbers and if Rodriguez can pile up yards with explosive plays early in the season, he can rewrite the UK record book.