Kentucky learned the hard way last season that there is no such thing as too many running backs on the roster.
Raymond Sanders struggled with his knee all season. Josh Clemons looked promising (279 yards, two touchdowns in six games) and then tore the meniscus in his knee. Players once barely on the radar like former walk-on CoShik Williams and Jonathan George emerged as play makers of varying degrees.
There is a chance come August that all of the above players will be healthy, and the Cats will add promising freshman backs like Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor.
Williams, who ran for 486 yards and three touchdowns last season, sees that position as one of the strongest on the field when next season gets going.
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"I love our running backs," he said last week. "We try to go harder than any other group. We try to be the backbone, the people that hold the offense together. When the offense is down, we want to be the guys to bring them back up."
It's a group that shows promise, offensive coordinator Randy Sanders said on Saturday after the Cats' final scrimmage before next week's Blue-White Game.
"Obviously, our running backs: CoShik and Raymond and Jonathan George are going to have to be play makers for us," Sanders said. "We've got some freshmen coming in who have the ability to be. As we all learned last year, it's hard to count on freshmen until you find out how mature they are, not just physically, but emotionally."
One player who looks healthy to running backs coach Steve Pardue is Sanders, who was tabbed as the starter to begin last season only to have setback after setback on his repaired knee.
"He's had a good spring," Pardue said of Sanders (155 yards on 40 carries in six games last season). "Honestly, he's playing as good as he's played since I've been here, and a lot of it's because he's finally healthy. ... He's had a really good off-season. He's stronger; gotten a little bigger."
One Sanders play in Saturday's scrimmage caught the eye of quarterback Maxwell Smith, who said he and the running back would have connected on a 98-yard touchdown pass had it not been called a sack.
"Coach was livid," Smith said after the scrimmage. "It was a good little play that Coach called up. Unfortunately it was called back."
According to UK's release (media were not able to see the scrimmage Saturday), Smith completed 25 of 38 passes for 227 yards and four touchdowns.
Two of Smith's TD passes were to senior La'Rod King, who had seven catches for 76 yards. The other two went to Demarco Robinson.
Working with the second-string offense (against the second-string defense) in Saturday's scrimmage, George scored on a pair of runs, including a 70-yarder. He had 10 carries for 134 yards.
The big health question this spring has been Clemons, who has been around practice but not participating as he continues to rehabilitate his surgically repaired meniscus from the middle of last season.
Randy Sanders admitted there is concern any time an injury "requires this much rehab."
But the offensive coordinator is hopeful that Clemons will bounce back.
"He seems to be on track," Sanders said. "Sometimes injuries are beyond his control and beyond our control. Doctors do everything they can, he does everything he can and hopefully the injured area responds. You never really know."
Pardue said they won't be sorry in the fall that they were safe with Clemons' knee in the spring.
"He's come a long way, he's gotten better," Pardue said. "We're trying to be smart and make sure he's ready for August, which is a lot more important than April."
One thing that the offensive coordinator can't get used to is seeing Clemons wearing the No. 21 jersey. As a freshman last season, he wore No. 20.
"It still looks strange to me," Sanders said, then was asked if he knew why Clemons changed the number (Winston Guy wore No. 21 last season).
"I have no idea," Sanders said, before jokingly adding, "maybe the zero made him look fat. I don't know. He's not like me. I need vertical lines. He doesn't have that problem."
So does that mean Sanders would wear No. 11?
"I might be No. 111 to get that extra vertical line in there," he fired back.
'Kentucky won today'
After Saturday's scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium, Coach Joker Phillips seemed pleased with the direction his team is headed on both sides of the ball.
"I told the team, one side might think they won, the other might think they won," Phillips said. "From where I stand, I felt Kentucky won today."
Some scrimmage highlights included an offense that had no turnovers, but still Phillips liked what the defense was able to do, too. He specifically mentioned Bud Dupree, Farrington Huguenin, who had a couple sacks, and Martavius Neloms' leadership.
The coach cautioned against any of the players getting too cocky, though.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Phillips said. "I don't want anyone to think we have arrived, because we still have a lot of work to do, but I'm pleased with how this went."
Kentucky has had seven players leave the program since last season ended, but when asked last week about the attrition Phillips said he wasn't concerned and that it regularly happens at this time of the year.
He said players get frustrated with not moving up the depth chart as quickly as desired.
"When it doesn't suit, that's when you have guys leave the program," he said. "It's all across the country. I see it every single day."
Phillips continued: "We all make mistakes in recruiting. I'm not saying those guys were mistakes, but I would hate to have a walk-on that's playing for us and a scholarship player that's not playing, and me not have an opportunity to put that walk-on on scholarship."
The coach added that UK anticipated that there would be defections, which is why they signed a full class of 25 freshmen. He specifically mentioned that the players leaving make sure scholarships will be available for former walk-ons like running back CoShik Williams, safety Mikie Benton and kicker Craig McIntosh.
"I would feel really bad if I had to go talk to those guys about not being on scholarship when they're playing and the guys who just walked out the door weren't playing," Phillips said.
Six of the seven departures this off-season were on defense. But defensive coordinator Rick Minter also did not seem fazed by the exits.
"We can't beg anybody to be here," Minter said on Saturday. "We don't want anybody that doesn't want to be here. Football's not for everybody. It's a man's game. It's not a boy's game. If guys take themselves out of this program, it's because that's their choice. We didn't run a single guy off that left this program."