Scouting the UK running backs: Competition creating strong backfield

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 21, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

  • Scouting the running backs

    The main man: Take your pick. Kentucky has a wealth of players who could be the starter any given game. Look for either junior Raymond Sanders (5-8, 197 pounds) or senior CoShik Williams (5-9, 184 pounds) to get the start versus Louisville. Both of them will see significant action.

    The supporting cast: There is serious depth and versatility at this position. Included in that is senior Jonathan George (5-10, 223 pounds), who has run 60 times for 233 yards and two touchdowns. There are still questions about whether or not sophomore Josh Clemons (5-10, 204) will be available as he continues to have issues with his surgically reconstructed knee.

    Newcomer to watch: The Cats' running back bench got a big boost with freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor, who are getting rave reviews by coaches and teammates. Expect to see both big, powerful backs play this season and make an impact.

    Outlook: Injuries forced Kentucky to go deep into its running back stockpile late last season, but the Cats found a gem in former walk-on Williams. With all but Clemons healthy and 100 percent, this could be a powerful position for UK this season. Expect to see running backs rotating in and out all game and all season, which could provide the Cats with some serious versatility on the ground.

  • This is the sixth in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football team position by position. Read previous installments on Kentucky.com. Coming Thursday: Wide receivers

After he announced the quarterback decision on Monday, Kentucky Coach Joker Phillips was asked what the next great position battle will be.

He didn't hesitate.

"The running back is one of the really, really good competitions," he said. "It might be even more competitive than the quarterback (position). ... That might be the best competition we have on the football team."

It might be a battle, but it's been anything but a war, according to the players involved in it.

"If I can't be No. 1, I want it to be my teammate," Raymond Sanders said succinctly.

"We're all good friends off the field," he said. "So it doesn't matter to us. Whoever wins the starting spot has earned that spot, believe me. And he knows he's going to have to keep earning that spot every week because we'll all be pushing for it."

Sanders, a 5-foot-8 junior who was sidelined much of last season by various knee issues, said he's back at full strength.

His position coach, Steve Pardue, said Sanders is the best he's ever been.

"He looks good; he looks fast; he's quick and he's got a lot of confidence," Pardue said of Sanders, who has run for 409 yards and three touchdowns in 108 attempts in his UK career.

But Pardue isn't about to call Sanders the front-runner. There's too much competition.

Last week, the running backs coach said Sanders and senior CoShik Williams were neck and neck for the starting spot.

Williams, a former walk-on, played in nine games last season, including starting the final five after injuries to players like Sanders and Josh Clemons, who is still questionable with his own knee troubles.

Williams, a 5-foot-9 senior, impressed last season and has run for 672 yards and seven touchdowns in his career.

Jonathan George played in 11 games last season as a reserve. He's run for 233 yards and two scores in his Kentucky career.

Those three players have helped set the tone for the competition, which has never been contentious in fall camp.

"We as a group decided we were going to come out and make sure we're all getting better and pushing each other," Sanders said. "We want to do this as a group. So we share knowledge, we make sure everyone understands. We share the vision on the field. We work together to make the position stronger."

If Clemons gets into the mix, the position could go as deep as six players this season, with Coach Joker Phillips announcing that both true freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor will see action this season.

"Both guys are big, physical guys who can move the pile," Phillips said. "Those two young freshmen have a chance to be special."

And if they prove to be special this season or one in the near future, the head coach thinks they'll have players like Sanders, Williams and George to thank for their success.

"They are cheering for those freshmen because they know there are enough carries to go around throughout the whole season," Phillips said. "Those guys are practicing hard, been real helpful to each other, been real helpful to those young freshmen. Those top three have been competing their tails off and it's been infectious to those young guys, too."

The head coach has no problem with a running back by committee approach. In fact, he thinks it's best that way for UK. "They're all good enough to play; they're all good enough to win with."

Practice report

An exploratory scope of sophomore running back Josh Clemons' surgically repaired knee showed what Phillips described as "loose stuff" that probably will need to come out.

The coach was still mum on the idea of redshirting Clemons, who has had swelling in the knee during fall camp.

There is a 10-day rest period required after a scope, the coach confirmed, which makes Clemons seem unlikely for the opener at Louisville on Sept. 2.

■ CoShik Williams, who sprained his foot during a scrimmage over the weekend, was still in a walking boot, but can get up on his toes and has been running. Phillips expects the senior will be cleared to resume full practice as early as Thursday.

■ Phillips doesn't like to talk about freshmen, but so far, based on what he wouldn't say, it's safe to assume that Landon Foster will be the Cats' new punter.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com

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