UK tailbacks have strength in numbers

If Injury bug Bites, Cats are prepared

ccosby@herald-leader.comSeptember 13, 2009 

Kentucky hasn't had a true No. 1 tailback, one guy you can give it to 20-25 times a game on a consistent basis, since Artose Pinner ran for 1,414 yards in the 2002 season.

That was also the last time a UK running back had more than 200 carries in a season. Pinner had 283 carries in 11 games that year, an average of nearly 26 per game.

Only four Wildcat backs in history have gone over the 200-carry mark: Pinner, Moe Williams (294 carries in 1995), George Adams (253 carries in 1984) and Sonny Collins, who accomplished the feat twice (224 in 1973 and 248 in 1975).

Brooks hasn't had a bell cow like the 5-foot-10, 235-pound Pinner during his seven-year tenure at Kentucky. Rafael Little came close to the 200-carry mark twice with 197 in 2005 and 190 in 2007, but Little was under 200 pounds and battled injuries throughout his career.

Tony Dixon took over the starter's role after Little left in 2008, but Dixon also stayed banged up and carried just 132 times for 430 yards.

Senior Alfonso Smith is Dixon's heir apparent and sits atop the depth chart at tailback. But it looks as if Brooks will once again employ the tailback-by-committee approach he's used for most of his time at UK.

Kentucky used five different tailbacks in its 42-0 win over Miami last week, and all five ran the ball effectively. Smith had 36 yards on seven carries; junior Derrick Locke, No. 2 on the depth chart, led all rushers with 61 yards on eight carries; third-stringer Moncell Allen added 57 yards on eight carries; redshirt freshman CoShik Williams had a team-high 10 carries for 39 yards, and true freshman Donald Russell picked up 30 yards on seven fourth-quarter carries.

Brooks said it's unlikely that UK will be able to use five backs on a weekly basis once the competition heats up.

"I'm hopeful we can stay injury-free at the position, and if we do, the top three backs would get the bulk of the carries," he said.

But head coach of offense Joker Phillips said the team will take all five backs on the road for insurance. While Smith (6-1, 208) and Locke (5-9, 190) both bulked up some in the off-season, they'll likely have to deal with some occasional pain: Smith with a bruised foot that flared up early in fall camp and Locke with his surgically repaired left knee.

That, coupled with UK's recent history with injuries at tailback, is why the coaching staff decided to play five backs against Miami.

"It's hard to hold up in this league," said Joker Phillips, UK's head coach of offense. "We've got to play those top three guys, but you just don't know if all those guys will hold up. History has shown that they haven't."

Williams is a 5-foot-9, 180-pound walk-on from Georgia's Hiram High School, the same program that produced standout cornerback Trevard Lindley. He made a big impression in the spring with Locke sitting out to rehab his knee and carried that momentum over to fall camp.

"I had to work a little extra harder being a walk-on," Williams said. "But it was something I wanted really bad. As good as I did in the spring, I knew I had to be even better in the fall because we've got so many good backs. I'm just glad to be in the rotation."

The fact that Russell played was somewhat of a surprise, as the coaching staff had hinted that they might try and get by with four backs in the opener. Another freshman, Jonathan George, was making a push for early playing time before being sidelined with a high ankle sprain. Brooks said Russell, a 5-11, 205-pounder from West Palm Beach, Fla., came on strong during the last week of fall camp.

"He showed us a lot of the things we saw in high school; he's physical, he breaks tackles, he's a downhill runner, and he's got good feet," Brooks said.

Still, Russell was surprised when Brooks called his number in mop-up time against Miami.

"I really didn't know if I was going to play," Russell said. "I wasn't expecting to really. But when he came over to me, I got real excited. I felt like he wanted to see what I had. I felt like I got in there and ran hard. It felt good."

Russell knows there will be some weeks when he'll be mainly standing on the sideline. He also knows that he has to make the most of the carries he does get.

"I can't make too many mistakes," Russell said. "I have to get in there and take care of business. Our running backs are so good, you can't waste any carries. You've got to produce when they call your name. I really wanted to play this year, so I just have to hang in there and stay mentally prepared."

Brooks said that while Williams and Russell are the fourth and fifth-stringers, they need to remain mentally and physically ready to play because their number could get called at the drop of a hat.

"If this season is anything like the past one, those guys will get even more opportunities than they got in (the Miami) game," Brooks said.

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