Carries are precious in crowded Cats backfield

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 2, 2014 

  • Kentucky at Louisville

    When: Noon Saturday

    TV: ESPN2

    Records: Louisville 8-3 (5-3 ACC); Kentucky 5-6 (2-6 SEC)

    Series: Kentucky leads 14-12

    Line: Louisville by 12½

It wasn't clear whether Braylon Heard was joking when he said that he was "just trying to be efficient with each carry" on Saturday.

The junior running back said that after he managed to take both of his two carries of the game in for long touchdowns.

Whether his tongue was firmly in cheek or not doesn't matter, though. The Nebraska transfer has learned something every running back on the roster has gleaned: You'd better take advantage of every carry you get.

Unlike past seasons when Kentucky couldn't finish a season with a healthy running back, the Cats have five guys vying for carries.

They learned how precious carries are in the 59-14 win over Tennessee Martin on Saturday when the UK offense had just 28 of them — 14 in each half — and three of those went to quarterback Patrick Towles.

"I don't really know how he's going to distribute all the carries throughout all the running backs 'cause we're an extremely talented group," said sophomore Jojo Kemp, who led UK's rushing attack last season. "But as long as we're winning, I'm fine with it. Give me one carry. I'm fine with it as long as we get that 'W.'"

The coach in charge of passing out all of those carries is Chad Scott. He said his goal every game is to get a fair amount of touches for each guy, but that's easier said than done.

"What we try to do is try to get all of those guys in the game early, so at least you know you got them in and gave them an opportunity to do something with the football because as the game progresses, you never know how the game will go," Scott said.

"We had intentions of getting them all in the game more, but the ball didn't roll our way like it did in the first half."

In the win over the Skyhawks, the most carries for any UK running back was eight for Kemp and seven for Mikel Horton, who took in two for touchdowns.

"I didn't know how many touches I would get," the true freshman from Ohio said. "Coach said all the running backs would play though, so I was happy about that. He gave me opportunities to run, and he said I took advantage of them."

The phrase "Zero Ego" is posted in the running backs' room. It's a concept Scott demands.

"Be a team guy and be unselfish," the running backs coach said. "Chains keep moving. If everybody makes plays, you get more plays."

Thirteen Southeastern Conference running backs got double-digit carries in their first games. That might not happen in a game for any UK back this season.

But the number of carries shouldn't be the goal; making plays should.

"We do this for each other," Horton said. "Every running back has zero ego and that's a great thing to have."

It doesn't mean the group isn't competitive.

They know who had the most yards, who got the most touchdowns.

In video study this week, they learned more from the Heard runs than just to take advantage of the limited opportunities.

They learned the value of being patient and sound fundamentally.

The head coach, offensive coordinator, running backs coach and even Towles noted that the beautiful part of the Heard runs were how routine they were.

"What you do is show those guys is Braylon Heard, he touched the ball twice and scored twice," Scott said. "He didn't do anything spectacular, other than doing the little things right."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown called the two runs extremely disciplined runs, something he didn't see a few times from the younger running backs.

"Some of our younger guys — and it's natural, it's natural — they get impatient and just try to run," Brown said. "They're decent plays, good yardage plays, but they're not big plays. If you're disciplined, pay attention to details, it turns into big plays."

For his part, Towles said he doesn't care which of the five players he's handing the ball off to, he just likes that there are play-making options in the Cats' backfield.

Including the quarterback's 23-yard scoring run, Kentucky managed six rushing touchdowns in a game for the first time since 2007.

"They're huge stress relievers," Towles said of UK's running backs on Saturday. "When I make a decision, they factor into it. I can throw this pass here and it could get broken up — could not — or I could hand the ball to Braylon.

"Today showed you hand the ball to Braylon and it's a pretty good decision."

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

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