UK Football

A running back controversy at Kentucky? If anything, the Cats could use bench more.

Despite the clamoring of a vocal minority on Twitter, Kentucky does not have a running back controversy.

Redshirt freshman Kavosiey Smoke ranks 17th in the country with an average of 7.38 yards on 34 rushing attempts this season. A.J. Rose, a junior, has rushed 47 times for a 4.09 average (120th nationwide). Smoke has 251 yards rushing to Rose’s 192 through three games.

Some fans have called for Smoke, listed for the third straight week along with fellow redshirt freshman Chris Rodriguez as the immediate backup to Rose, to be the No. 1 option in UK’s backfield. Despite his reserve role, Smoke finished with more carries against the Gators (16 to 14), and has ended all three games as UK’s leading rusher.

Rose as a backup last year averaged more yards per carry (6.6) than Benny Snell (5.1), UK’s all-time leading rusher, but only carried the ball 71 times (less than a third of what Snell received). His rushing average has dipped, but Rose at the same time has emerged as one of Kentucky’s most reliable receivers: He’s been targeted nine times, catching every ball thrown to him for a total of 56 yards (Smoke has been targeted once and caught it, but for a 2-yard loss). Rose seemingly has been stronger in pass protection, too.

“A lot of times it’s just by series, who’s in there,” head coach Mark Stoops said during his Monday press conference. “Sometimes based on carries is how we’re doing on that particular drive.” During his radio show later Monday, Stoops said both backs have earned their carries and would continue to get an even workload.

What mattered most against Florida is that neither Rose nor Smoke proved effective in crucial short-yardage situations: Smoke failed to convert on a first-and-goal run at the 1-yard line (Sawyer Smith punched it in on the next play) and on a third-and-2 try that preceded Chance Poore’s missed field goal in the fourth quarter. Rose on back-to-back attempts — third-and-1 to end the third quarter and fourth-and-1 to open the fourth — didn’t deliver.

Rose wasn’t to fault for the fourth-and-1 failure, according to head coach Mark Stoops. The offensive line was responsible for a “really missed assignment.”

“Not trying to be condescending to them, but we had a play,” Stoops said Monday. “We don’t usually make those mistakes. … We missed that play. That hurt because we could have got, we felt, 2, 3, 4, 5 yards on that play, maybe more.”

Missed assignments or not, those situations are an area wherein Rodriguez — a stockier rusher who’s been affectionately nicknamed “Mini Benny” by the locker room — could conceivably make a difference, but he hasn’t had a carry since fumbling twice against Toledo in the season opener (one on a would-be touchdown, the other after a 6-yard pass completion). He rushed five times for 34 yards against the Rockets, and also had the Cats’ third-longest kickoff return of the year (20 yards) in that game (Lynn Bowden has the top two).

The fumbles were part of why Rodriguez hasn’t seen the field, Stoops said, but Rose and Smoke “doing some really good things” has been a factor as well.

“You can’t miss out on opportunities and put the ball on the ground,” Stoops said. “But he’ll get back out there. We have faith in him and confidence. We can use him. He is different than the other two. He’s young, as well, a little bit inexperienced. It’s hard to say what would happen with certain runs, with certain guys in critical moments. He’ll get back in the fold.”

Around the SEC

Tommy Stevens is listed as Mississippi State’s starting quarterback against Kentucky but head coach Joe Moorhead on Monday described his availability as “day-to-day.” Stevens in MSU’s last two games has been hindered by a shoulder injury, which in both cases has led to the insertion of backup Garrett Shrader, a true freshman who was considered the seventh best dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 signing class.

A trip to South Carolina, against whom Kentucky has a five-game win streak, is up next following this weekend’s game. The Gamecocks, who haven’t lost to Missouri in the last three seasons, opened as a 10-point underdog at Mizzou on Saturday. South Carolina lost to Alabama, 47-23, in its SEC opener last week; it will be Missouri’s SEC opener.

Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, who was injured during the third quarter at Kentucky, is out for the season with a dislocated ankle.

Next game

Kentucky at Mississippi State

When: 4 p.m. EDT Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Records: Kentucky 2-1 (0-1 SEC), Mississippi State 2-1 (0-0)

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Josh Moore is in his first year covering the University of Kentucky football team and in his fifth year reporting for the Lexington Herald-Leader, where he’s been employed since 2009. Moore, a Martin County native, graduated from UK with a B.A. in Integrated Strategic Communication and English in 2013. He’s a huge fan of the NBA, Power Rangers and country music.