Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb were in the Nutter Field House for the University of Kentucky's first spring football practice on Wednesday.
Unfortunately for Coach Joker Phillips, the dynamic duo was on the sideline in sweats as observers while they prepare for the upcoming NFL Draft.
UK has plenty of questions to answer on offense this spring, the primary one being, how does it go about replacing two players who accounted for 60 percent of the team's yardage on the ground?
Phillips said he's ready to give it a go.
"Every year you're going to lose people," Phillips said. "We understand that. That's the game we play. You lose guys to graduation, and sometimes guys leave on their own. But you've got to be prepared for that. It was different not seeing those guys (on the field) because they've been here so long. I was getting ready to introduce Locke to (student assistant and ex-UK quarterback) Andre Woodson, and I didn't realize Locke played with Andre Woodson. That's how long that guy's been around here. But faces change every year, so we've got to move on."
With quarterback Morgan Newton still a work in progress and the offensive line figuring to be the strength of the unit at this point, the Cats will need to run the ball. Locke's productivity will be hard to duplicate, but the UK staff will get a long look at four running backs this spring to see if a front-runner emerges.
Atop the depth chart is sophomore Raymond Sanders, who rushed for 254 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman last fall. The 5-foot-8 Sanders has some similarities to Locke. While not as fast or explosive, Sanders is shifty in the open field and a threat as a receiver and return man.
Sanders has put on nearly 15 pounds since arriving at UK and is now a sturdy 195. But with three other backs in the mix and two highly touted prospects set to arrive in the fall, he isn't taking anything for granted.
"My spot isn't sealed, so I got the mentality that I've got to show what I can do on every play," Sanders said. "I want to show the fans that even though Derrick and Randall are gone, we've still got some playmakers."
And if Sanders doesn't win the job?
"It would be all my fault; it's all on me," he said. "The coaches told me it's mine to lose, so if I don't get it, I can't fault anybody but myself."
Brandon Gainer is champing at the bit to get in the mix after being redshirted last fall. The 5-11, 200-pounder could ultimately be the type of combination back the Cats have lacked in recent years: big and physical enough to pick up tough yardage inside with enough speed to bust a big play.
"I'm so excited I can't sleep," Gainer said. "I've been studying the playbook two, three times a day because I know I've got work to do. I've got to read quicker and hit the hole. But my goal is move up the depth chart and be either No. 1 or No. 2 when it's all over."
The competition also includes junior CoShik Williams and sophomore Jonathan George. The running back corps will grow to six once Marcus Caffey and Josh Clemons, both Georgia natives, arrive on campus.
Not only will the Cats be breaking in a new back, they're also getting used to a new coach. Steve Pardue takes over full-time after arriving for the December bowl practices. Pardue is still getting to know his personnel.
"It's the same as high school," said Pardue, the longtime head coach at LaGrange (Ga.) High. "Guys graduate, so you better be developing some guys. From what I've been able to tell so far, the staff did a good job of getting some of these young backs ready to play this fall, and I'm excited to see what they can do."
Cats in pads on Saturday
Kentucky will have its first spring practice in full gear Saturday morning after practicing in helmets and shorts Wednesday and Friday. Teams are required to have three practices in helmets and shorts, and usually the Cats wait until the practice before the Blue-White Spring Game to get the final one out of the way. But Phillips said since his team is installing so many new things on offense and defense, he'll have his final practice in helmets and shorts on Monday.