Cats happy with four-headed tailback

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 22, 2008 

  • Running backs

    This is the sixth installment of an eight-part series examining Kentucky’s football team by position.

  • Coach: Larry Brinson is in his second season coaching running backs at UK. Brinson worked for Ken Hatfield for 23 years at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice. Last season marked the first time since 1995 that Kentucky had rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a team.

    The main man: Tony Dixon is the most experienced of a deep stable of tailbacks. He has a good burst through the hole, and he uses his quick feet to make people miss. Dixon needs just 42 yards to surpass the 1,000-yard plateau.

    The supporting cast: Alfonso Smith has both the size and speed to pile up big yardage, and he and Dixon figure to be the first two backs in the rotation early on. Sophomore Derrick Locke is perhaps the most exciting runner of the three and could eventually be the featured back, while Moncell Allen figures to be a nice change-of-pace, situational option. Fullback is in good shape with junior John Conner and converted linebacker A.J. Nance.

    Newcomer to watch: None. UK didn’t sign any running backs in February. This is one area where they’ll be able to rely strictly on veterans.

    Reasons for optimism: Kentucky has depth and speed, and they even have a top-flight fullback in Conner.

    Reasons for concern: Dixon, Smith and Locke have all been banged up at various points in their careers, and Dixon needs to make sure that his occasional fumbling problems are a thing of the past.

    Outlook: This area looks as solid as any on the team. The Wildcats might not have a 1,000-yard back in the group, but their stable of backs could easily surpass 2,000 yards among the four of them.

    Chip Cosby

Tony Dixon has never quite had his chance to be ‘The Man’ in the University of Kentucky backfield.

He broke into the starting lineup as a true freshman and rushed for 105 yards against Indiana, but he was sidelined by a high ankle sprain after six games.

That allowed another true freshman, Rafael Little, to take over, and Little never looked back, seizing control of the tailback position for most of the next three seasons.

Dixon, in the meantime, was suspended for academics the following spring, then he missed his sophomore year with a broken leg. He’s been a solid backup the past two seasons, compiling 714 yards with seven touchdowns. And nobody was bigger down the stretch in the program-turning win over Georgia two years ago, as Dixon accounted for 54 of UK’s 69 yards in the game-winning drive.

But even though he’s an experienced and battle-tested fifth-year senior, Dixon probably won’t be “The Man” in the UK backfield this year, either. While the 5-foot-9, 203-pounder is currently No. 1 on the depth chart, the Wildcats plan to use a four-tailback rotation with Dixon, junior Alfonso Smith and sophomores Derrick Locke and Moncell Allen.

But while Dixon might have to split carries, he still feels like “The Man” in a lot of ways.

“I feel like I’ve got to lead and help these guys with the situations we’re going to be in,” Dixon said. “I’m bringing the experience to the table, and helping these guys to see what to do and how to do it.”

College turned out to be an eye-opening experience for Dixon, who was part of a graduating class of 30 at his high school in Parrish, Ala., a community infested by drugs and violence. In addition to being overwhelmed by the UK experience, Dixon also had to fight through various injuries.

Once a struggling student, Dixon now thrives in the classroom. And he’s also persevered through shoulder, ankle and leg injuries, something that has made him a personal favorite of UK Coach Rich Brooks.

“He’s a guy that came from a very humble, difficult background and struggled early on getting adjusted to college life,” Brooks said. “But he’s flourished since then and worked his way through injuries without getting down and hanging his head. He’s just been a very positive individual on our football team.”

Dixon said it was Brooks who helped him pull through those difficult times when he considered returning home to Alabama.

“Coach Brooks is both a coach and a close personal friend to me,” Dixon said. “My freshman year, when I got in academic trouble, he talked to me and encouraged me to do better. I sit by him on the way to games. If we go to the movies, we sit next to each other and chat. We’re pretty close.”

Dixon is part of a tailback stable that Brooks feels is the deepest and most talented position on the team. Behind Dixon is Smith, a 6-1, 205-pounder with breakaway speed whose progress has been slowed somewhat by injuries and a crowded depth chart.

“I really feel like this is my breakout year,” Smith said. “I know I’m going to get my chances this year, and I’m going to make the most out of them.”

Kentucky also has another home-run hitter in Locke (5-9, 180), who burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman with big-game performances in wins over Arkansas and LSU. Locke has missed time this fall with a sore shoulder but will be hard to keep off the field.

And when Kentucky needs a bruiser, they can turn to sophomore Moncell Allen. The 5-foot-7, 225-pound Allen suffered a broken thumb in fall camp last year that limited his carries, but the coaches are counting on him being an asset on short-yardage and goal-line situations.

Allen, who’s nicknamed “The Turtle,” said he can move better than his moniker suggests.

“Don’t let that fool you,” Allen said. “I can run. We’ll be watching film and the players will look, laugh and say, ‘Look at his little legs moving.’ But that’s all right. I get the job done.”

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