All eyes will be on Benny Snell when the Citrus Bowl kicks off and the Kentucky running back tries to scramble and scrap for the 107 yards he needs to break the school’s career rushing record.
But the UK junior, who announced his intentions to leave early for the NFL Draft this month, has been eyeing the players who will replace him at Kentucky next season.
Fans have gotten a look at Snell roommate and close friend A.J. Rose, who is expected to take over where Snell left off next season. The sophomore has rushed for 433 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Rose will have plenty of help going into next season in Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez, Snell assured.
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“They’re both good,” Snell said. “I look forward to seeing those guys.”
Cats backers have gotten a few glimpses of the two true freshmen this season. The 5-foot-11, 218-pound Rodriguez, who is from McDonough, Ga., has played in three games and gained 43 yards, including an impressive 27-yard charge against Murray State.
Smoke, a 5-foot-9, 219-pounder from Wetumpka, Ala., impressed in the victory over Louisville, gaining 45 yards and scoring a touchdown.
Both will be eligible to play in the Citrus Bowl against Penn State and keep a redshirt season intact, per new NCAA rules.
Watching Rodriguez and Smoke in the workouts and practices leading up to the bowl has UK coaches and players excited about the future of the ground game.
“Kavosiey and Chris, those two dudes right there, those are two powerful running backs,” junior linebacker Kash Daniel said when asked about players who presented the defense trouble in practices this season.
Even offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has been impressed with Smoke and Rodriguez, especially in these practices leading up to the bowl.
“Just watching them move around, that’s been fun the last couple of weeks, seeing them go good on good and get a lot more reps,” the UK running backs coach said. “They stuck out a little bit to me.”
Coach Mark Stoops has noticed them too in their limited roles this first season on campus.
“Kavosiey and Chris, when you did see them you saw the talent that was there and the maturity and how physical they are,” he noted. “They’ve got some speed.”
Snell has been doing what he can to prepare them for their expanded roles in 2019.
“I tell them to be as technique-sound as possible,” said Snell, who has 3,729 career yards and 46 touchdowns and owns more than a dozen UK rushing records.
“Always finish runs, always run hard, never let one guy tackle you, fall forward and just play the game.”
Snell is a fan of Smoke and his ability to make quick cuts and get open in space, as evidenced by that touchdown run versus Louisville in November.
And Rodriguez has Snell seeing double.
“Chris is a lot like me,” Snell said. “He can make you miss or he can run through you. But when he hits the hole, he’s running full speed. He’s falling forward.”
The Cats also added Travis Tisdale on the recent early signing day, and the group has Gran excited about the future. Tisdale is a player that UK can use several different ways.
“Brings just a little bit something different,” Gran said of the 5-foot-9, 175-pound player from Valdosta, Ga. “This guy’s a track guy. He’s probably a 10.6 kid. Reminds you a little bit of a Boom Williams home run-type hitter.”
Tisdale will complement what UK already has in its running backs room, Gran said.
“A.J. and Kavosiey and Chris Rodriguez — I think you put him in that room and you have four dynamic running backs that are really going to be fun to work with this fall.”
Senior Sihiem King, who has compiled 572 career rushing yards, took a redshirt year in 2018 and has one more season of eligibility. He could give the UK running game a veteran boost or move on to another program as a graduate transfer.
‘Guys will be really up for that’
For the 20-plus players — and a couple of key coaches — from Ohio, facing Penn State in the Citrus Bowl has a little extra meaning.
“When you play Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State in a bowl game, trust me, them guys will be really up for that,” tight ends coach Vince Marrow said last week of the Ohio players he helped recruit to UK.
“I’m even up for it because you grew up in that area. … These kids came here because our message was come play in the best conference in the country, but they’re all Big Ten. We’ve got a Big Ten mentality on our team, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Key players on this Citrus Bowl team are from Ohio like safeties Mike Edwards and Darius West, running backs Benny Snell and A.J. Rose, wide receivers Dorian Baker, Lynn Bowden and Ahmad Wagner, tight ends C.J. Conrad and Justin Rigg as well as starting linemen on both sides of the ball in Phil Hoskins, Tymere Dubose and George Asafo-Adjei.
That group and many others will get a chance to face a team they grew up hearing a lot about.
Getting to face Penn State has the players extra excited, said Conrad, a LaGrange, Ohio, native.
“It means a lot because you have a lot of respect for a program like Penn State, they have a lot of history,” Conrad said. “For us to not have very much history as Kentucky football, it would mean a lot for us to get this win.”
“To play a Big Ten school means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to the other Ohio players.
Conrad grew up in “Big Ten country” he said, but added that he’s turned a lot of die-hard Big Ten believers into UK and Southeastern Conference fans during his four years on campus.
“If you go back, it’s crazy where I’m from you see a lot of blue,” Conrad said. “They all like the SEC now.”
Senior Josh Allen went around the country collecting various awards and trophies over the past month.
What exactly is the linebacker planning to do with all of that hardware, especially since he’ll likely be moving to an unknown NFL city in the coming months?
“I don’t know,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know, just going to stack them in a pile for right now and just go from there.”
Allen doesn’t have a trophy case at his apartment at the moment.
“I think I need to get one, though,” he said. “Those are pretty heavy trophies, so I’m probably not going to fool with them, just keep them in my living room for right now and get something nice to hold them up.”
This kind of season, filled with awards and record breaking, is exactly why Allen opted to come back for his senior season, though.
The new UK record holder for career quarterback sacks and sacks in a season added: “I came back to do things like this and right now it’s paying off. … I just got to finish out the season.”
No. 14 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Penn State
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1, WLXG-AM 1300, WLXG-FM 92.5
Records: Kentucky 9-3 (5-3 SEC), Penn State 9-3 (6-3 Big Ten)
Series: Penn State leads 3-2
Last meeting: Penn State won 26-14 on Jan. 1, 1999, at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla.