A.J. Rose had nearly forgotten the rush of joy that comes from rushing into the end zone.
It had been a long time since Kentucky’s running back had felt that jolt in a game-like setting.
Rose experienced it not once, but three times Friday night in the Blue-White Spring Game.
After that first touchdown, a 3-yard run with 5:36 to go in the first quarter, the sophomore made his way back to the Kentucky bench feeling a bit of joy and relief.
“I sat down on the sideline and thought, ‘It’s really happening. It’s my time now. I’ve got a shot,” said Rose, who led the offense with 134 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries in its 45-32 win over the defense at Kroger Field.
Rose wasn’t sure this time was ever going to come. Not quite ready as a true freshman, he sat out a year and watched friend and roommate Benny Snell break nearly every freshman rushing record at Kentucky.
Last season, he showed flashes in practice and in his limited game action, but it hadn’t amounted to as much as he wanted.
“I was just frustrated in myself that I wasn’t learning as fast as everybody else,” said the 6-foot-1, 208-pound back from Cleveland, Ohio, who had 15 carries for 37 total yards last season.
Rose could’ve quit. He could’ve stayed frustrated, but instead he kept working at it, trying to learn the offense so he could play more and think less with the ball in his hands.
He pestered his roommate to watch film and find flaws he could fix.
“Every time I make a mistake, we watch the film at home and we talk about what I’m doing wrong, what can I do?” Rose said of living with Snell. “He helps me out as far as my runs, the right holes to hit.”
Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran saw it start to come together for Rose in a recent scrimmage. Then he saw that carry over during the spring game.
“He’s just so much more confident,” Gran said of recent changes in the sophomore. “A little more physicality. You saw him get north and south. You saw him run over a safety again. Dropped his pads.”
An improved Rose could make a dangerous duo for Kentucky.
“There’s going to be great competition there,” Gran said. “I like it because I want A.J. to push Benny. If A.J. keeps playing like that, then he can be the guy. There’s competition and that’s what we’ve been yearning for at that position.”
Coaches wondered if Rose was going to take a step back or a step forward after a strong scrimmage a week ago. Mark Stoops loved seeing the forward progress.
“You never know when somebody is going to put it all together,” his head coach said of Rose, who has improved dramatically in blitz pickup and decision making overall. “He’s been showing flashes for a long time, but to put it all together and play winning football all the time, he’s been doing that this spring.”
• Rose wasn’t the only running back to have a strong spring. Coaches had been pleased with the progress of senior Sihiem King as well. He wasn’t able to show it off after suffering a head injury. He sat out the spring game while working through the concussion protocol.
“That was hard for him, being a senior and kind of getting his shot,” Gran said of King being sidelined. “Up until then, been as steady as he can be (this spring).
“Everything he was doing was right on point and then to miss our last two are really tough. Tough on him, too, because he’s such a competitor. It was tough.”
Special teams glance
Conditions weren’t ideal to test the two players vying for the starting punter job this spring. There was a gusty wind, especially early at Kroger Field. It made it harder to get a feel for who is ahead in that competition.
It also wasn’t clear if coaches were asking for situational punts or just basic punts from Grant McKinniss and Max Duffy on Friday. Stoops seemed pleased with both contenders.
Duffy, who had one 51-yarder, finished with five punts for 220 yards (44 average) with two touchbacks.
McKinniss didn’t quite have the distance of Duffy, averaging 36.7 yards on three punts, but the former starter was able to land two inside the 20-yard line.
There were no punt returns.
• Walk-on kicker Miles Butler made a 43-yard field goal to end the first half, which impressed Stoops. “Good to see him out there,” Stoops said of Butler. “It’s a lot of pressure on with no offensive line, no defensive line, just him and the snapper and the holder, so you’ve got to make it.
Other news and notes
As expected, several key players for next season sat out the spring game coming back from injuries, including wide receiver Dorian Baker, tight end C.J. Conrad, defensive back Derrick Baity and linebacker Jordan Jones.
Every player who missed time in the spring should be ready by the start of fall camp in August, Stoops said, including Jones, who injured his shoulder recently and had it surgically repaired.
“He’s on the road to recovery and doing his rehab, and everything seems to be on point so far,” Stoops said.
• Kentucky was without safety Darius West, who had a death in the family and had to miss the spring game.
“He really wanted to play because he’s had a really solid spring,” Stoops said of West. “He was disappointed, obviously, but our prayers are with him and his family. He’s really worked hard, and I’ve been impressed with Darius.”