The 2014 edition of the Kentucky Wildcats football team has a clear game plan in mind. The day that Coach Mark Stoops hired Danville native and UK alumnus Neal Brown away from Texas Tech as his offensive coordinator it was apparent that Air Raid was coming back to the commonwealth.
With the return of Air Raid, there is not only a need for an accurate quarterback, a good offensive line, and playmakers on the outside. There is also a need for a stable of thoroughbreds in the backfield. In past years Kentucky would be lucky to have one such playmaker. The history of the position for UK is not a very long and illustrious list; in fact, the majority of the better running backs have been recent additions to the record books.
While Sonny Collins has the most career rushing yards of any running back since 1970, the a sizable portion of the fan base likely did not see him play. As for me, it goes back to Moe Williams and his run through the record books, making UK football exciting. More recently, you have the likes of Anthony White and Derek Homer, who were part of Hal Mumme's original Air Raid. Then you had Artose Pinner and his magical 1,400-yard senior year leading UK to a 7-5 record. The cats should have been 8-4 that year if it were not for the "Bluegrass Miracle" game Pinner's year pushed him to seventh in yardage rankings since 1970 with 1,917 career yards.
Following Pinner was Rafael Little, who played a big part in the most recent glory days of UK football and finished his career as third on that list with 2,996 yards. Derrick Locke provided a nice transition from Little with an unexpected breakout freshman season. Over the next four years he ended up as the sixth leading rusher since '70 with just short of 2,600 yards.
|Kentucky Wildcats Career Rushing Leaders - Since 1970|
The only year Kentucky could look to as a year where they had multiple threats in the backfield was that magical (by UK standards) 2007 season with Little, Locke, and Tony Dixon making significant contributions. My point is that for the first in maybe the history of the program, the Cats will boast a true stable of SEC running backs to rotate through.
Leading that stable of talent will be the returner Jojo Kemp. Kemp came on throughout season and showed flashes of excitement. Kemp has a good combination of size, speed and agility that should have BBN excited for his sophomore campaign. Kemp scored two touchdowns in Saturday's spring game to go along with 93 yards rushing and another 41 receiving.
Kemp figures to be atop the depth chart this fall but the competition has been immediate, as Braylon Heard is eligible this season after sitting out last year due to transferring from Nebraska. Heard has made a new home in Lexington because he was buried in the depth chart behind 2014 Heisman contender Ameer Abdullah. Heard was a 4-star RB in high school and while at Nebraska was able to average a video game-esque 6.7 yards per carry as a sophomore. Heard has received praise for his work ethic and Coach Brown has gone as far as saying;
"He took as much advantage of a redshirt year as anybody I've seen." "He was a little stiff in his hips and in his movements, and he went to work and did a great job with our strength and conditioning guys, became more flexible and looks a whole lot different than he did when he was at Nebraska."
The Cats also have an early enrollee freshman in Mikel Horton who was a top 25 prospect from Ohio with an offer from Florida State. Horton has made an immediate impact this spring and showed that he is a serious contender for immediate playing time this fall. Horton finished with 70 yards on 13 carries and a touchdown on Saturday while flashing speed that most people did not realize he would have to go with his physicality.
Then there is Josh Clemons, Clemons came to UK and looked poised to be a career starter as he took the job by the throat early in his freshman season in what was seemingly the only long-term bright spot on that team. Unfortunately, Clemons suffered a season ending knee injury and sat out the following year rehabilitating it. Last season Clemons was poised to be the feature back but early on in pre-season workouts, he suffered an Achilles injury that sidelined him once again for the season. Now Clemons is healthy and while some fans may have forgotten about him, he has made it clear he will not be an afterthought. Clemons is an SEC caliber back with size and speed and led all rushers Saturday with 93 yards and a touchdown. Expect Clemons to be a significant contributor this fall.
In addition to having four SEC caliber running backs get carries yesterday, UK also has true freshman, Stanley "Boom" Williams coming in. Williams was a 4-star recruit with offers from Auburn, Clemson, Florida State and was once committed to Georgia. UK also has Pitt transfer Demitrious Davis who was a 3-star recruit and a top 35 athlete in America before enrolling at Pitt. Having said that, Davis may get a look at receiver simply due to the logjam of talent ahead of him at running back.
In past years, Kentucky would be fortunate to have any one of the aforementioned players as the featured back. This year though, they will have four or five SEC caliber players at a position that is essential to a solid Air Raid style offense, at least in the Neal Brown variant. The difference will be instantly noticeable and is an immediate injection of talent and production.
While Coach Brown would love one to step up and take the job, he is fine with a RB by committee approach, saying,
"I think running back, you can be by committee. Now, we'd like a guy to jump up and just be the guy and be able to do everything. But I think you can kind form [sic] that running back position around what people do the best. But I know coach (Chad) Scott wants a guy to emerge, and I'd like for that too, but you can - it's not a negative if we do it by committee."
In a day and age where it is becoming the norm to try to nickname everything, being The Commonwealth of Kentucky's football team it may be only fitting that Kentucky shocks some people this year with their Four Horsemen.