'08 Kentucky Football: Running backs

This is the fourth in a series of posts which will break down the '08 football 'Cats.  Today we break down the running backs.

As with the linebacker corps, the running backs have a huge void to fill.  A void once filled with one of the most prolific offensive players in UK history. Rafael Little, while recognized as an elite talent, was a bit under-appreciated by fans, I feel.  Possibly because of the presence of Andre' Woodson in the same backfield.  But Little's numbers cannot be denied:

  • Little gained 5,343 all-purpose yards in his career -- 2nd all-time to Craig Yeast
  • Little gained 4,320 total yards ( rushing + receiving ) in his career -- 5 th all-time in UK history.  He is the top ranked running back EVER in the career total yards category. 
  • Little gained 2,996 yards rushing in his career -- 3rd all-time behind only the great Sonny Collins, and Moe Williams. 
  •  Little hauled in 131 catches in his career -- 5th all-time.
  • Little totaled 1,324 receiving yards in his career -- Tied for 9th all-time with former TE James Whalen ( Little is 2nd in receiving yards by a running back, to Anthony White ) 

To write that Little will be missed would be a gross understatement.  His versatility as a running back brought a whole new dimension to the passing game, and his ability to chew up chunks of real estate from the backfield made him a true double threat.  Losing Little would spell doom for most teams, but Kentucky is fortunate enough to possess three talented, experienced running backs to run the ball down the throats of the Cards, Gators and Vols:  

Tony Dixon 

The 5'9", 203 lb senior running back ran for 411 yards ( 5.7 yards per carry ), caught 13 balls for 91 yards, and scored 4 touchdowns last year.  His freshman and sophomore years Dixon had the following combined totals: 547 yards rushing, 199 yards receiving and 5 touchdowns. 

Dixon has struggled over the course of his career with staying healthy.  He broke a leg and had to red-shirt his second year.  His ( RS ) sophomore year he struggled with a strained hamstring, and last year Dixon missed three games with an ankle injury.  Keeping him healthy is vitally important to UK's success.  Dixon has demonstrated an ability to come up big, in big games, and although there is talent behind him, he brings invaluable experience. 

Dixon also possesses some tangible leadership qualities; he was elected to the team leadership council as a sophomore, which is a rare accomplishment.  More importantly he has displayed leadership and extreme toughness on the field.  As a sophomore, he led UK to a rare victory over Georgia with his gutsy fourth quarter play: In the that game, while nursing a strained hamstring, he accounted for 54 of the 69 game winning yards, while scoring the go-ahead touchdown from three yards out.  It was a huge victory for UK on their return to pigskin relevance.

I look for Dixon to receive the most carries of the three primary backs if he stays healthy, and holds on to the ball.  He's proved over his career that he is effective running the ball in all situations; he's fast enough to turn the corner, and big and bad enough to run through the defensive line.  He can catch the ball out of the backfield, which is a talent that will probably be utilized more this year than in previous years.  Versatility is also an attribute that Dixon brings to the Cats, and will ensure his presence between the lines in '08.

Alfonso Smith 

The 6'1", 190 lb junior running back ran for 149 yards ( 7.1 yards per carry ), caught 7 passes for 22 yards, and scored 3 touchdowns last year.  Smith was chosen the "Most Outstanding First-Year Offensive Player" as voted on by the coaches. He posted some impressive freshman numbers: 60 rushes for 250 yards, 6 receptions for 96 yards, and 2 touchdowns. 

There are no two ways about it; the kid has jet engines masquerading as his legs.  He boasts a 4.24 - 40, and a 10.52 - 100.  The Waggener High School alum has impressed Cat fans in his first two years, and '08 should be know different.  He'll see his share of carries in a crowded backfield, and I think he'll battle to get to the 1,000 yard mark.  His ability to break long runs whenever he carries the ball, as well as his versatility as a pass catcher makes him Joker Phillips' best friend.  

Smith announced his intentions with authority in the Blue-White game with 170 yards rushing.  

Derrick Locke

The 5'10", 180 lb sophomore running back ran for 521 yards ( 5.5 yards per carry ), with 7 catches for 86 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

If Alfonso Smith has jet engines for legs, then Locke must be rollin' with rocket boosters for wheels.  The Hugo, Oklahoma native can flat out motor.  He posted a 4.21 - 40 at Pro Day this past spring at UK.  Kentucky head coach Rich Brooks said that Lockes 40 that day was the fastest he's ever seen in person.  Locke endears himself even more to UK fans with his "run around you, or run over you" attitude.

Locke saved UK's bacon versus Arkansas last year.  With Little hurt, and Dixon benched after his second fumble of the game, Brooks turned to his freshman track star.  Locked responded like a true gladiator, running the ball 9 times for 48 yards in the last half of the fourth quarter.  He ran around and through defenders with abandon.  I cringed more than once while watching him take on a linebacker in pursuit of yardage.  Heart, grit, and determination.  Keeping him off of the field will be very difficult to justify, and I feel that by the middle of the year he may claim the spot of primary rusher ( currently held by Tony Dixon ). 

Locke is also a great testament of the ability of Coach Brooks to recognize talent.  He did not receive many D1 offers, and the few programs that did show interest wanted him as a defensive back.  After viewing a game tape provided by Locke, Brooks did not hesitate to tell the young man he could play running back at Kentucky.  Kudos to Papa Brooks. 

Locke, as with Dixon and Smith, has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.  I see him replacing Little's screen pass yardage from last year; Locke, with the ball, with three or four blockers out front, could prove to be a pleasant sight for Kentucky fans. 

Lockes rare combination of speed, and his head-hunting persona make him a dangerous weapon.

Moncell Allen

The 5'7", 225 lb sophomore running back had 39 yards ( 3.5 yards per carry ), with 2 catches for 8 yards last year.

Coming out of high school Allen was tabbed a Top 50 running back according to Rivals.com.  Originally from New Orleans, his family was forced to relocate to Charlotte, NC.  He's a former teammate of UK receiver Dicky Lyons, Jr.  Both attended Holy Cross High School in New Orleans.

Allen had a very good Blue-White game after entering the spring as a bit of an unknown; he ran 15 times for 85 yards.  His strong spring performance has encouraged the coaching staff enough to possibly include him in the running back rotation. 

He's an excellent blocker, and can provide a change of pace, countering the three burners in from of him on the depth chart.

Antoine Brown

The 5'9", 190 lb junior running back has played in 11 total games, carrying the ball 7 times for 15 yards. 

Brown had a good spring, but he'll probably only see serious playing time if there are significant injuries at the running back spot.

FULLBACKS

Maurice Grinter

The 6'3", 250 lb junior running back/fullback/tight end/ slot receiver had 9 carries for 35 yards, with 4 catches for 21 yards, and 1 touchdown.

The Fairdale product has been tried at multiple positions since his arrival three years ago.  This fall Grinter is most likely to be used as a back-up fullback. 

He has one interesting career achievement; the first time he touched the ball at the collegiate level he scored on a 1 yard touchdown run versus Texas State in his freshman year ( '06 ).

John Connor

The 5'11", 228 lb junior had 37 yards ( 6.2 yards per carry ), with 37 receiving yards on 7 catches, scoring 4 touchdowns.

Connor will be the starting fullback.  He has proved himself to be an excellent blocker as well as being adept at doing what fullbacks are supposed to do when they run the ball; get the tough yards.  He also catches the ball well, especially for a fullback, which adds another wrinkle to Joker's playbook. 

He played in all thirteen games last year, and just as Grinter, he scored a touchdown the very first time he touched the ball in college; he scored on a 17 yard pass versus, you guessed it, Texas State. 

Final Analysis

Kentucky is blessed.  Having three studs back, along with a very good fullback, can only mean good things for UK.  With the existing quarterback situation, the running backs will carry the bulk of the offensive load for the Blue and White.  Making that load a lot lighter is the fact that The Big 3 ( Dixon, Smith, and Locke ) offer a tremendous amount of diversity to the offensive game-plan.  They can all catch and elude, they can all turn the corner, and two of them have the nitro-afterburner package. 

The depth of the talent Kentucky boasts will also mean that UK's offense should rule the fourth quarter.  Brooks and Phillips will spread out the carries allowing their ball runners to remain fresh, and by the fourth quarter a fatigued defense will have trouble containing the triumvirate.

I also feel that the ratio of runs to passes will change a bit.  Last year UK ran 407 running plays ( for 2,225 yards ) for running backs, and 528 pass plays.  That's 56.5% pass plays.  I'll forecast a five to seven percentage point drop in that number for '08.  Unless one of the two quarterback candidates proves Woodson-like, the running backs should dominate the offensive numbers.

Notes

Red-shirts Stephen Ball and Matt Ramsey will likely compete for playing time at fullback.

The dismissal of running back Brandon Jackson in the spring will probably not be felt this year.  Jackson was the #2 rated prospect in Oregon coming out of high school, and was considered a big-time get by the coaching staff ( he was a Top 50 running back according to Rivals.com ).  But with the plethora of experienced backs on the roster he would not have seen the field, except in the case of an outbreak of injuries.

Thanks for reading, and keep it goin' Josh Hamilton! 

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