Kentucky's Raymond Sanders has been told his entire life that he's too small.
The senior running back, listed at 5-foot-8, 187 pounds, would like this to be the season he comes up big.
"They can say whatever they want, but it's what you do," Sanders said recently. "My mom always told me, 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.'"
After years of battling injuries and other setbacks, Sanders thinks this, his last season wearing blue, will be his year.
"I feel the best I've felt," said Sanders, who has played in 29 games, including seven starts. "I'm just stronger, faster. Everything's going well. It's been a tough three years with the injuries and things like that, but I'm still blessed to be here with this opportunity and to be able to play some more games."
A coaching staff that's been pretty mum about its depth chart, trying to make sure it gives every player an opportunity to break into the two-deep, has not been shy about saying that Sanders is their likely starter this season.
There is no question in the minds of Mark Stoops, offensive coordinator Neal Brown or running backs coach Chad Scott that Sanders will be a key play-maker.
"It's a pretty good distance between him and some of the other guys," Scott said of the player from Stone Mountain, Ga. "He's an experienced kid; he's played in this league. He's been around for a while."
Sanders has looked so good in the spring and in the fall that he's made his coaches take notice.
"I think Ray keeps getting better," Brown said of Sanders, who ran for 669 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 5.4 yards a carry. "I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at Raymond Sanders this year. I expect big things from him."
In fact, he's been so good so far that Scott said it's been "hard not to overwork him because he does so many things well."
Sanders' size and speed might actually work to his advantage in Brown's offense.
"It gets you the ball in space," Sanders said. "If you can read a defense quickly, you can get yards in a hurry."
Sanders also has the ability to catch the ball with 39 career grabs for 238 yards and a score, which could make him a good quick read option when UK goes four wide.
The good news for Sanders is he's not alone. In fact, running back might be one of just a couple spots on the field where there's depth and versatility for Kentucky.
"I feel good about the backfield, I really do," Stoops said this week.
There's fellow senior Jonathan George, who rushed for 504 yards and four touchdowns while catching 21 passes for 223 yards last season, leading Brown to refer to him as a "steady Eddie," this week.
There's Dyshawn Mobley, who is coming back from hernia surgery but is pushing the starters, and freshman Jojo Kemp, whom Stoops called a "pit bull" this week.
"They're different running styles, but we need those guys to come," Brown said of the two younger guys. "And they are. They're going to play."
Sanders, even though small in size, is a big reason that Stoops and Brown are so pleased with that position group.
He has brought the other players along with him. The self-proclaimed film junkie spends time breaking down defenses with his fellow backs.
"That's my big brother," Mobley said of Sanders. "He knows everything. He helps me. I just try to get with him, study. I constantly ask him what I need to know and I try to execute what he tells me."
Whoever is out there, Sanders wants UK's runners to show something.
"A lot of the guys can come in and get it done," he said. "We just want to be the best backfield in the nation ... that's what we compete for every day, to just be the best."
And even though he's likely earned that coveted starter spot, Sanders said he hasn't rested. He goes out every day and runs like he's the last guy on the depth chart.
He goes out there hearing the echo of the voices telling him he's too small to be a Southeastern Conference running back.
"I still have a lot to prove," Sanders said. "I want to be the play-maker for this team and I have to come out here every day and practice like that."
Aug. 31: vs. Western Kentucky at Nashville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 7: vs. Miami (Ohio), noon
The main man: Senior Raymond Sanders has separated himself from a talented backfield with his maturity, knowledge of the game and blocking ability. His versatility doesn't hurt either. He's been able to score in multiple ways, including catching passes, which makes him a great option in Neal Brown's offense. For his career, Sanders has run for 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns. He's also caught 39 passes for 238 yards and a score.
The supporting cast: Running backs take a pounding during the season, especially in the Southeastern Conference, but UK seems to have a fairly deep collection of promising, versatile backs, including senior Jonathan George (108 carries for 504 yards and four scores last season), sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who is coming back from hernia surgery, and freshman Jojo Kemp, who was rated the No. 10 multipurpose back in the nation by Rivals.com. They all offer different running styles that could prove useful.
Outlook: Two players in this position group, Kemp and George, earned the designation of "pit bull" by Coach Mark Stoops this week for their attacking style. The Cats are going to need all of their top dogs at this spot to be successful this season, especially as they break in a lot of new wide receivers. The Air Raid focuses on wide receivers, but the running backs might be the most key position for UK to find success this season.
JENNIFER SMITHComing Saturday: