Joker Phillips has many challenges facing him as he enters his second season as the man in charge of the Kentucky Wildcat football program, and one of the most important to UK's success is finding a running back rotation which is capable of taking advantage of the 'Cats' top rated offensive line. With the loss of long-time starter Derrick Locke to the NFL -- Locke takes with him his 2,618 career rush yards (6th in UK history), 883 receiving yards, and 1,464 kick return yards (27.1 return average ranks 1st in UK history), equaling 4,965 all-purpose yards (3rd in UK history) -- and speedster Donald Russell to transfer to Bill Curry's Georgia State squad -- Russell takes with him his 430 career rush yards, and an exceptional 5.6 yards per carry average -- Phillips must find among his stable of players who it is that's ready for life in the SEC. To bring the backfield losses into focus: between Locke, Russell, and Randall Cobb (mostly out of the "Wildcat" formation), UK lost 1,604 of the team's 2,061 rushing yards from 2010. Also missing from last year's UK squad is fullback Moncell Allen and his hard-charging, gap-making style of play.
Life in the SEC, an SEC with a plethora of strong running backs coming back, will be made more difficult than it should be for the 'Cats if UK can't move the ball on the ground, because all of Kentucky's opponents will challenge the Wildcat defense with ground-pounding pressure. Want a taste? South Carolina returns super soph Marcus Lattimore, who rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns in his freshman campaign (in roughly one half of football last year versus UK, Lattimore ran for 79 yards and two touchdowns); Tennessee returns Tauren Poole, who rushed for 1,034 yards and 11 touchdowns last year (against UK, Poole ran for 59 yards and one touchdown); Florida welcomes back the speedy duo of Jeffrey Demps and Chris Rainey, who combined for 917 yards and five touchdowns in 2010; Mississippi State has Vick Ballard back, who last year rushed for 968 yards and 19 touchdowns (versus the 'Cats, Ballard ran for 108 yards and one touchdown); Ole Miss returns Brandon Bolden, who last year ran for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns (in Ole Miss' head-scratching win over UK last year, Bolden ran for 108 yards and a touchdown).
Even the 'Cats' non-conference slate is full of better-than-average backs: WKU brings back All-America Bobby Rainey, who last year sped his way to 1,649 yards and 15 touchdowns (against the 'Cats, Rainey poured it on, running for 184 yards, finding the end zone twice); and Louisville returns the dangerous Victor Anderson, who, after rushing for over 1,000 yards his freshman year, has had a series of injuries thwart his efforts in the ensuing two seasons, but Anderson returns this year healthy and motivated.
Everybody knows, in the SEC a team had better be able to ground out the yardage, and control the clock with an affective running game. That may be more true this season, than any season of recent vintage. For Kentucky, the top 'Cat candidates vying to earn snaps running behind UK's promising offensive line in 2011 are:
Raymond Sanders: 5'8," 205lb sophomore -- In part-time duty last year, Sanders rushed for 254 yards on 68 carries (3.7 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. Sanders displayed the versatility UK has come to expect from its running backs by catching 16 passes for 114 yards (7.1 yards per reception), and one touchdown. Filling in the for the injured Derrick Locke, Sanders had best game against the Georgia Bulldogs, when he ran for 79 yards on 16 carries (4.9 ypc), and posted 77 yards receiving on seven catches (11.0 ypr) and a touchdown.
Currently No. 1 on the UK depth chart, Sanders will at least begin the season as the 'Cats' top ball carrier, but several young studs will be clipping at his heels. With UK in possession of so many sets of young legs, Phillips will probably go with a brigade of backs, instead of one featured back, which should enable Sanders to get some rest, hopefully keeping him fresh throughout the year.
CoShik Williams: 5'9," 178lb redshirt junior -- The Hiram, Georgia product ran for 136 yards on 24 carries (5.7 ypc) and four touchdowns last season. Williams' most productive game came against Charleston Southern when he rushed for 95 yards on 13 attempts (7.3 ypc) and three touchdowns.
Williams is short and light, but has a low center of gravity, which gives him great balance as he runs. He'll get his fair share of carries, mostly around the edges, and if he can prove he can catch the ball, with his outstanding speed, Williams will be a great candidate to run the bubble screen, as Locke did so effectively over the last three years.
Jonathan George: 5'10," 209lb redshirt sophomore -- In eleven games last season, mostly on special teams, George ran for 25 yards on nine carries (2.8 ypc). George is going to be given the chance to earn carries this season. Stuck behind Locke and Alfonso Smith two years ago, and Locke, Sanders, and Russell last season, George figures to make a huge leap up the fall depth chart. He's a versatile player (he recorded 3,300 all-purpose yards his senior year of high school in Lincoln, Alabama), with great speed (he won the Alabama high school state championship in the 200 and 400-meter dash) and Joker likes speed and versatility in his backs.
Brandon Gainer: 5'11," 199lb redshirt freshman -- Coming out of high school, Gainer was rated the No. 15 running back in the nation by ESPN.com, and a top-40 back by Rivals and Scout.com. For his high school career, Gainer ran for over 4,700 yards and 37 touchdowns.
A late, surprise get for Joker Phillips last year, Gainer carries with him much promise. As with most of Joker's running back recruits, he's versatile. The backfield is loaded, though, so he'll have to give Joker a reason to "go with Gainer."
Gainer's high school coach, Telly Lockette, had this to say about his star pupil, "Brandon has great work ethic, comes early and leaves late. He is a very durable back, a hard runner who can catch the ball out of the backfield."
Josh Clemons: 5'10," 201lb freshman -- The 4A Georgia State Offensive Player of the Year ran for 2,003 yards and 25 touchdowns last season for Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Georgia. Clemons set the school career rushing mark with 3,585 yards and 40 touchdowns. The extremely quick Clemons (he runs a sub-4.5) has earned quite a lot of praise from his teammates and coaches alike, and is challenging for meaningful time on the field.
Clemons' high school coach, Amos McCreary said about Clemons, "Josh runs low, can run around you or over you. He's a great kid, and a great student."
Clemons spurned Mississippi State, Maryland, Cincinnati, and Wake Forest to come to UK.
Marcus Caffey: 5'11," 189lb freshman -- Caffey was a top-40 rated running back by Rivals, and top-50 by Scout. Out of Grady High School in Atlanta, Caffey ran for 1,611 yards and 17 touchdowns his senior year.
For the man with sub-4.5 speed who oozes the ability to make defenders swing and miss, it's not a matter of if he'll play, instead, it's how soon and how much.
Caffey said no to Arkansas, Ole Miss, Purdue, South Carolina, and West Virginia to come to Lexington (great job recruiting to David Turner).
The Battering Rams, Otherwise Known as the Fullbacks
The Kentucky tailbacks have been spoiled for most of the last two years. With quality fullbacks John Connor, now with the New York Jets, and the graduated Moncell Allen clearing the way, UK's running game has produced 4,547 yards on the ground (175 yards per game). Connor and Allen also gave the UK quarterback outstanding protection. Attempting to keep the tradition of solid fullback play alive in 2011 is Morehead State transfer Cody Jones, aka "Bullethead." A 5'11," 208lb sophomore out of Whitley County, Jones has pushed ahead of his challengers, and now sits atop the depth chart. The word is Jones is a bull, comparable to both Connor and Allen in pass protection and run blocking. Roswell, Georgia native Andrew Joseph will be battling Jones for playing time. The 5'10," 232lb redshirt sophomore prepped at the Naval Academy Prep School in 2008. Finally, redshirt frosh Toba Omotinugbon (6'0," 233lbs), who was the Southern Indiana Player of the Year in 2009 playing for Jeffersonville High School, is changing positions from linebacker to fullback to add depth and competition to the position.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!