Kentucky is a football program that is known for its running backs. From Sonny Collins to Benny Snell Jr. and beyond, the Wildcats have experienced historical success at the position. AJ Rose’s 1,971 career rushing yards were good enough to be ranked 10th in program history. That’s quite an accomplishment given the Cats’ historical emphasis on running the football.
The Minnesota Vikings signed AJ Rose to a free agency deal following the 2021 NFL Draft. Rose was versatile, productive and at times an explosive player during his five-year stay in Lexington. Even with experienced and proven RBs returning for the 2021 season, Rose’s presence in the Kentucky backfield will be missed. First, we’ll take a look at the running back’s impact as a Wildcat and then project how UK replaces Rose’s 5.8 yards per carry, which was good enough to be ranked third in program history.
AJ Rose played in 44 career games with 24 consecutive starting assignments. Rose amassed 1,971 rush yards which ranks 10th on UK’s all-time list. The versatile running back also caught 30 passes for 233 yards. He recorded 7 career 100-yard games. His last game was arguably his best after rushing for 148 yards on just 12 carries against North Carolina State. He gained 12.3 yards per carry to earn Gator Bowl MVP honors. So, the question remains, how will Kentucky replace its 10th all-time leading rusher? Christopher Rodriguez Jr. is the answer.
Chris Rodriguez Jr. is a 5’11, 224-pound junior running back that earned All-SEC and All-American honors in 2020. Rodriguez led the conference with a 6.6 yards per carry average and finished 5th in the league after averaging 87.2 yards per contest in 2020. He’s exceeded the 100-yard mark on 6 occasions during his two seasons in Lexington. This season he will run out of a new scheme that will feature the outside zone and additional receiving opportunities, which can only boost his draft stock. How valuable is Rodriguez? According to Pro Football Focus, Chris Rodriguez Jr. is the best returning running back in all of college football. PFF assigned a 92.4 grade for his performance in 2020.
Joining Rodriguez Jr. will be fellow junior Kavosiey Smoke. He’s played in 24 games in two seasons as a Wildcat. Kavosiey Smoke’s freshman season has been his most productive as a Wildcat. He ran for 616 yards and scored 6 touchdowns in 2019. Smoke racked up 229 yards a year ago to go along with five receptions for 25 yards. Smoke is a shifty runner with breakaway speed and is surprisingly powerful. Sophomore JuTahn McClain adds quality depth at the position. McClain has many excited about the sophomore’s upward trajectory on the Wildcat’s depth chart. Yet another Ohio product on the Kentucky roster, McClain played in all 11 games a year ago and finished the season with 62 yards off 16 carries.
What Does All This Mean?
Kentucky is loaded at running back. Chris Rodriguez Jr. was named as the nation’s top returning RB in the nation by Pro Football Focus. Kavosiey Smoke is a proven entity with breakaway speed that can provide a change pace runner for new offensive coordinator Liam Coen. Ju’Tahn McClain has a world of potential and should see his carries increase in 2021.
AJ Rose’s production was unquestionable. He will be missed. However, Chris Rodriguez Jr. is special and should rise through the ranks on the program’s all-time rushing list in 2021.
Check out the rest of Freddie’s series on how Kentucky will replace its new pros: