UK Football

A look at why Kentucky’s ground game is hitting its stride

Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp (3) runs with the ball past Vanderbilt linebacker Ja'karri Thomas in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Lexington, Ky.
Kentucky running back Jojo Kemp (3) runs with the ball past Vanderbilt linebacker Ja'karri Thomas in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Lexington, Ky. AP

The play looked like it was going to die at the line of scrimmage and then Jojo Kemp bounced wide right and picked up the first down against Vanderbilt.

“I just had to make something happen for my team,” the senior running back said last week.

His Kentucky coaches noticed.

“You have to give a lot of credit to Jojo, I thought the run when he bounced it and outran him and got the first down was huge,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “That’s a big play. It’s nice seeing somebody step up when their number’s called.”

That’s been the case all season for Kentucky’s three-headed running back monster of Boom Williams, Benny Snell and Kemp.

The trio, who have rushed for 1,011 yards and 10 touchdowns midway through the season, have combined for a 5.7 yards per carry average.

They’re working hard to outwork one another, Kemp said.

“You see guys in there making plays, you just want to go in there and make just as many plays as the next guy,” Kemp said of the trio, which has combined for 52 different plays of 10 yards or more.

“You have competitive runs, just a competition there. … As long as we’re putting points on the board and winning, I’m all for it.”

Kentucky’s success running the ball has directly equaled victories. In the Cats’ three victories, they are averaging 285 yards a game on the ground and they have gotten nine of their 11 rushing touchdowns (5.6 yards per carry).

In its three losses, UK has managed just 87.3 yards a game on the ground and just 2.8 yards per carry.

The ground game looks to be hitting its stride right now, running for 258 yards against Vanderbilt, which came into the UK game as the nation’s fifth-best rushing defense.

The Commodores, who were allowing just 67.5 yards a game, held Southeastern Conference East teams like Florida and Georgia to less than 100 yards apiece in those games.

In fact, the Bulldogs and Gators managed just 167 yards combined against Vanderbilt. Kentucky was just a few yards short of that at halftime (142).

Kentucky, which will face the nation’s 37th-best rushing defense this weekend in Mississippi State, has struggled in the passing game recently and has had to lean hard on the ground game.

That’s something offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, a running backs coach by trade, is happy to do.

Gran credited the offensive line working hard this summer on competing against movement by defensive lines and being stronger.

“Our offensive line and tight ends have been a lot more physical,” tight end C.J. Conrad said. “Just executing and doing what we do at least as a tight end and o-line group, we try to be as physical as possible. I think we’ve done a good job with that.”

It’s fun to block and be in the trenches for players like Williams, Snell and Kemp, the sophomore tight end said.

“Benny helps because he brings a different mix,” Conrad continued. “Him and Boom are completely just two different runners. I think it’s tough for the defense to defend.”

UK’s ability to be more physical in the trenches is among a list of things, including better blocking by wide receivers, that have led to bigger numbers for players, said Williams, who leads UK rushers with 540 yards and two touchdowns on 76 carries (7.1 per carry average).

“There’s a lot that plays into it,” he said of the Cats’ running success. “We’re going to try and keep that going. Being able to have the run game has opened up the game for us in the passing game, play action and things like that.”

Snell and Williams have the most combined rushing yards by a UK duo through the first six games of a season (881) since Tony Dixon and Rafael Little had 965 in 2007.

The versatility of those running backs, including Kemp who has had some nagging injuries early in the season but is back to 100 percent, gives UK’s game planners a lot of options.

“You can do a lot of things formationally, you can do a lot of things to help the run game,” Gran said, including many run-pass options that come with having a quarterback who also can run in junior Stephen Johnson. “We’ve got to be really good at (RPOs) when we have our opportunities, and I think that helps all of your run game.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Mississippi State at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

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