UK football: Senior running backs relieved to learn Air Raid doesn't abandon ground game

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2013 

  • Jonathan George

    5-foot-10, 221 pounds, senior, Lincoln, Ala.

    2012 stats

    Rushes: 108

    Average yards per carry: 4.7

    Catches (2012): 21

    Average yards per catch: 18.6

  • Raymond Sanders

    5-foot-8, 199 pounds, senior, Stone Mountain, Ga.

    2012 stats

    Rushes: 125

    Average yards per carry: 5.4

    Catches (2012): 18

    Average yards per catch: 10.1

Kentucky's two senior running backs admitted that they flinched a little at first when Neal Brown was hired to coach their offense.

"I was a little worried," Raymond Sanders said. "Being a running back, you want to run the ball."

But as Sanders and Jonathan George have gotten to know Brown, and more importantly gotten to know his offense, they've grown more and more excited about their potential place in it.

"They call it the Air Raid, but the Air Raid can't go without us," George said.

Their coaches agree.

The old "Air Raid" of former coach Hal Mumme has gone the way of the biplane, interesting to look at, but not necessarily practical in the Southeastern Conference.

"There's a lot of things positive about Coach Mumme (but) he wasn't real interested in running the football," said Brown, who played in this offense under Mumme. "We will run the football."

But the question remains: How much?

In his three seasons at Texas Tech, Brown's offense passed the ball roughly 60 percent of the time and ran the ball 40 percent of the time. Nearly 70 percent of his touchdowns were through the air.

In the two seasons he was offensive coordinator at Troy, the team was a little less pass heavy, throwing the ball 54 percent of the time.

But don't let the numbers fool you, Coach Mark Stoops said.

"He's more balanced than people think," Stoops said of Brown's offense. "We have to run the ball, and that's a big emphasis for me. ... I've been impressed. Like I said, I feel like that we do have some physicality to us."

This offense is not formulaic, Brown said. He doesn't go into a season planning to run the ball 20 percent less than he throws it.

"Whatever we're better at during the course of the game is probably what we'll do," Brown said. "We'll be a little bit different than we were at Tech. How much? I'm not real sure yet."

George predicted this season Kentucky could be split down the middle pass and run, based on practice and scrimmages.

"I honestly feel like it might be even, 50-50, because we have great running backs," said George, UK's second-leading rusher last season with 108 carries for 504 yards and four touchdowns.

UK returns its top four running backs, including dual-threat quarterback Jalen Whitlow, who ran it 68 times in 10 games last season and scored three touchdowns on the ground. Sanders is back as UK's leading rusher with 669 yards and five scores on 125 carries.

Specifically in the opener the Cats will be running hard, going up against a young, inexperienced defensive front for Western Kentucky that has just nine career starts among them.

Other than senior Bar'ee Boyd, the Tops have a red-shirt freshman and two red-shirt sophomores listed at the other defensive line spots. They're a different group than the one that was 33rd best in the nation against the run, allowing just 136.6 yards a game.

And as the Kentucky offensive coordinator points out, this system is less about the percentages of passes and runs and more about finding playmakers, something former Cats coaches were on a quest to find the past two seasons.

"I think people may be shocked to see us run the ball as much as we are," running backs coach Chad Scott said in fall camp. "The thing about Coach Brown: He just find ways to put the ball in the playmakers' hands. Thus far in camp, the running backs have proven they can make plays."

They're not just making plays running it up the gut either.

The Air Raid portion of this offense has meant some skill sharpening for the Cat backfield. Coaches put a huge emphasis on running backs being able to catch the ball effectively and they have improved "tremendously," Brown said.

"We call them complete running backs," Scott explained a back's place in this offense. "They better be able to run the ball effectively, pick up the blitz and catch the ball."

After hours upon hours catching balls this summer, George said it's become a specialty for some of the running backs, noting that each of their catching percentages have increased dramatically.

"There's a lot of plays for running backs to have an opportunity to make plays in open space," George said. "We'll have to see when the season gets here, but we have a great group of running backs, a lot of guys in the backfield who can deliver."


Mark Stoops on Jonathan George


Mark Stoops on preparations for opener


Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown talked Aug. 28 about running the football, what it will mean to be OC in his first game coaching in his home state and Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Nick Holt.


Neal Brown on getting ready for WKU


Raymond Sanders

5-foot-8, 199 pounds, senior, Stone Mountain, Ga.

2012 stats

Rushes: 125

Average yards per carry: 5.4

Catches (2012): 18

Average yards per catch: 10.1


Jonathan George

5-foot-10, 221 pounds, senior, Lincoln, Ala.

2012 stats

Rushes: 108

Average yards per carry: 4.7

Catches (2012): 21

Average yards per catch: 18.6

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

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