Scouting the running backs: Durability a concern for Cats

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2009 

  • SCOUTING THE RUNNING BACKS

    Coach: Larry Brinson is in his third season coaching running backs at Kentucky. Brinson won a Super Bowl ring playing running back for the Dallas Cowboys and served as a longtime assistant to Ken Hatfield at Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice.

    The main man: Alfonso Smith has been in the rotation his entire career at Kentucky but has never gone into a season as the No. 1 tailback. He should get that chance as a senior, although he aggravated a foot injury in fall camp. When healthy, Smith is a home-run threat with 4.3 speed who's also improved as a receiver out of the backfield.

    The supporting cast: Junior Derrick Locke has recovered from last year's devastating knee injury and looks ready to go for 2009. While he might experience some ups and downs with the knee, Locke is also a big-play threat in the running and passing games. Moncell Allen, a 5-foot-7, 225-pound junior, is the most physical of UK's experienced backs and will get his share of carries. The Cats have one of the best fullbacks in the country in senior John Conner, a punishing blocker who makes the most out of limited touches.

    Newcomers to watch: Redshirt freshman walk-on CoShik Williams had a big spring and has put himself in position to get on the field, especially if any of the top three backs go down with injuries. The coaching staff is still deciding what to do with freshman tailbacks Jonathan George, Donald Russell and Dakotah Tyler. George will miss at least the Miami game with a high ankle sprain.

    Outlook: Much of UK's fortunes hinge on the health of Smith and Locke. If they hold up, the Cats will have a nice threesome, including Allen, at tailback. If the injury bug starts to bite and Kentucky is forced to rely on freshmen, then count on plenty of growing pains.

    CHIP COSBY

Alfonso Smith and Derrick Locke have decided to adopt the mentality of NFL running backs this season.

Smith suffered a bruised foot in the Blue-White Spring Game, and the injury flared up at the start of fall camp. Locke is less than a year removed from tearing two knee ligaments in a game against Arkansas. Neither player is 100 percent, and the injuries figure to nag them for much of the year. There will be days when they'll have to either take it easy in practice or miss practice altogether.

But Smith and Locke say they'll be ready, starting with the season opener against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 5.

Both arrived at UK with fresh legs and 40-yard dash times below 4.3 seconds. Now Smith and Locke say they feel like battle-tested NFL backs whose primary goal is to hold up through the season. They might not always be at peak efficiency, but they say they can still compete.

"That's just SEC football, man," Smith said. "It lets you know that we're some tough little guys. We'll just have to strap on some more armor and go at it. Take Adrian Peterson (of the Minnesota Vikings). He's an awesome back. He plays through injuries, and sometimes he might not be able to play. But everybody knows he's a great back. LaDainian Tomlinson (of the San Diego Chargers), he's had some injuries. Most NFL backs have injuries that they have to push through. It's nothing different. I'm playing in a tough conference, and I'm getting the ball, so (injuries) are going to happen. I might not be a 4.2 speed out there, but I'm going to be a 4.3 or 4.4, and that's still going to make something happen."

Locke said he, too, understands that circumstances are never perfect.

"Everybody's asking me what percentage I am; that's irrelevant," Locke said. "The question is, do I feel productive, and the answer is yes. Can I go out there and make plays? The answer is yes. All the percentage stuff is out the window. You're not going to be 100 percent in this league. There's going to be days when I feel sore, there's going to be days where I might need a little extra treatment, but it won't stop me from doing what I need to do."

UK running backs coach Larry Brinson said Smith's and Locke's practice repetitions will be limited at times to keep them fresh. It's the same blueprint the staff often used with their predecessors, Rafael Little and Tony Dixon, who also battled nagging injuries.

Smith recalled the difference between Little in practices and in games.

"In practice, he'd be moving slow but, in games, he'd look like the same old 'Raf,' " Smith said. "That's basically what I'm going to have to do. You just have to push through practice, but when it comes to games, the trainers are going to find a way to get you on the field in the best shape possible and feeling as good as you can possibly feel."

UK Coach Rich Brooks said he counts on playing several backs in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.

"If you go back the last three or four years, we really haven't had one back stay healthy the entire year," Brooks said. "It's hard to do in this league with all the hits you take. That's why you need to have a few guys you can count on."

Brinson, Brooks and head coach for offense Joker Phillips all say Locke doesn't appear to have lost any speed or explosiveness following knee surgery, but one of the biggest stories of UK's second scrimmage last Saturday was the fact that Locke was caught from behind by cornerback Trevard Lindley after breaking free on a screen pass.

Brooks and Phillips cited poor conditioning, but Locke, while admitting he was a little winded, said he didn't realize anyone was behind him.

"(Conditioning) is not even an issue, really," Locke said. "I'll be ready."

Brinson vouched for Locke's story.

"Trevard caught him, but I swear (Locke) never saw him," Brinson said. "He got to about the 15-yard line and started drifting to the right, and Trevard came from the right and blindsided him. I figured he thought no one was there and he had an easy path to the end zone."

Junior Moncell Allen has been splitting first-team reps with Smith and Locke, and he gives Kentucky a physical, between-the-tackles runner at 5-foot-7, 225 pounds.

"We're very comfortable with Moncell," Brinson said. "We feel like we've got three quality, No. 1 tailbacks."

There are still some question marks with the rest of the rotation. The Cats would like to have at least five tailbacks they can use. Redshirt freshman CoShik Williams (pronounced co-SHEEK) was impressive in spring practice and gives the Cats a fourth option behind Smith, Locke and Allen.

"CoShik has done what we've asked him to do," Brinson said. "And that's to learn the offense to where we can trust him to come into a game, and that's where he is right now."

The fifth tailback will probably be a true freshman. Jonathan George had pulled ahead of Donald Russell and Dakotah Tyler before being sidelined with a high ankle sprain. The Wildcats probably will try to get through the Miami game with Smith, Locke, Allen and Williams and then re-evaluate during the open week before the Louisville game on Sept. 19.

"It was a shame to see Jonathan go down because he was really looking good," Brinson said. "If everybody holds up, you'd like to be able to redshirt those freshmen if you can. We'll just have to see how it plays out."

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