Poor Rich Brooks. Everywhere he turns he has people telling him who to play.
Everybody has an opinion on the Mike Hartline/Randall Cobb two-quarterback system. And while it hasn't grabbed as many headlines as the quarterbacks, Brooks has received his fair share of suggestions about UK's crowded stable of four tailbacks as well.
When a reporter asked Brooks at his weekly news conference how he decides which tailback plays, he joked, "I just listen to the call-in people. It depends on who gets the most calls on a given week."
Fifth-year senior Tony Dixon has been No. 1 on the depth chart all season. Dixon has had his share of big games in the past, like his 105 yards against Indiana as a true freshman, the 54 rushing and receiving yards he combined for in a game-winning 69-yard drive against Georgia in 2006, and his team-high 78 rushing yards in a win at Arkansas last season.
But Dixon has been slow out of the gate in 2008. His 18 carries are the most on the team, yet his 2.4 yards per carry average is significantly lower than that of Derrick Locke (8.1), Moncell Allen (7.5) and Alfonso Smith (5.3).
Brooks said Dixon, who has battled both nagging and serious injuries throughout his career, was the most physically beat up running back coming out of fall camp. As a result, he limited Dixon to just six carries in the 38-3 win over Norfolk State last weekend while Locke (five carries, 96 yards, one TD), Smith (seven carries, 38 yards) and Allen (seven carries, 71 yards, one TD) handled the bulk of the load.
Dixon has seemed sluggish hitting the holes in UK's first two games, but Brooks expects Dixon to snap out of is this week against Middle Tennessee State.
"He'll be much fresher this week," Brooks said of Dixon. "I think we'll see a different Tony as far as quickness and explosion."
Locke was a big-game player as a true freshman last year, delivering clutch runs in wins over No. 1-ranked LSU and Arkansas. He showed off his home-run-hitting ability against Norfolk State, as he cut toward the middle of the field and raced untouched for a 68-yard TD.
Brooks received a call to his radio show last week clamoring for more of Smith, a 6-foot-1, 204-pound junior who always seems to run well when given the opportunity but who's also buried at No. 3 on the depth chart. As a redshirt freshman in 2006, Smith stepped up for 157 yards of total offense in a big road win at Mississippi State, and last year he averaged a whopping 7.1 yards per carry despite being slowed by an ankle injury.
Smith admitted that he gets questions from outsiders about his lack of playing time.
"I hear it everywhere," Smith said. 'How come you're not starting? How come you're not in there? I just tell them I'm waiting my turn. I just try and stay positive about the whole situation. All of the backs are good, and it's hard for the coaches to get everybody in there."
Seniority has always carried weight with Brooks. Last year, he stuck with Rafael Little down the stretch even though Little was ailing with a thigh bruise. In UK's last three games, Little averaged just 3.3 yards on 55 carries while Locke averaged 5.4 yards in 23 carries over the same span.
"Coach Brooks stays loyal to the seniors, so he's going to start Tony," Smith said. "Locke had a big year last year and helped us in a big win over LSU, and I was hurt. I understand that. I've just got to play my role and just when I get in there, run hard."
Smith smiled and then offered a straight-up denial when asked if he had any connection to the radio caller.
"I haven't heard about that guy," Smith said. "I didn't talk to nobody. He really did it on his own. This was really my first time hearing about it. I don't know what to say about that. I'm innocent. But I appreciate him being concerned about it," Smith said, laughing. "I'm a little concerned myself."
Brooks said he handles his running back rotation mostly "on feel."
Allen received the first extended playing time of his career against Norfolk State, and the 5-foot-7, 225-pound sophomore made his case for more carries.
"Now I've created a bigger problem for myself, because Moncell looked really good running the football," Brooks said. "He's a load, and we always knew he was. Now we've got a bigger problem. I'm sure after every game I'll get some more calls, but I love those kind of problems."