For most of Alfonso Smith's career, we've seen him in small doses — a carry here, a carry there; a series here, a series there.
But now that's about to change. Derrick Locke's season-ending knee injury will thrust Smith into more of a feature role for Saturday's game at fifth-ranked Florida.
"You never want a teammate to go down to get your opportunity, but sometimes that's just how it happens," Smith said. "All I can do is take and run with it. I just have to play for (Locke) and my teammates and find a way to step up."
Smith, a fourth-year junior, brings size (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) speed (sub-4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and pass-catching ability to the table, but Kentucky's backfield depth has kept him mainly in a supporting role during his UK career. Smith had only three carries for 6 yards after Locke went down against Arkansas, but he dispelled the notion that he's a liability in the passing game with a team-high five catches for 108 yards, including a 71-yard catch and run that got the Cats on the board in the third quarter after they had fallen behind 17-0.
Smith has spent most of the season No. 3 on the depth chart behind Locke and senior Tony Dixon, but he didn't look like a third-team back against the Hogs. "I'm just patient," Smith said. "It's a long season. I just kept working hard, because when my chance did come I didn't want to be caught off-guard."
This won't be the first time that Smith has been thrust into the limelight, though. Back in 2006, the Wildcats were gunning for a bowl-qualifying sixth win at Mississippi State. Starter Rafael Little was out with a knee injury, and backup Dixon went out in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. Smith, then a redshirt freshman, came in and produced 92 yards rushing and 57 receiving and also scored the go-ahead touchdown in UK's 34-31 win. Smith also started the next week against Georgia and had a team-high 76 yards on 19 carries in Kentucky's landmark 24-20 win.
So while the Wildcats will miss Locke's versatility and big-play ability, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips has full confidence in Smith. "We've won some games with Alfonso, a lot of big games," Phillips said. "I'm excited to see him play. He's a guy that works really hard and deserves the opportunity he's about to get."
While Smith is listed No. 1 on the depth chart and should get more carries, the Cats will still continue the running back-by-committee approach that it has used all season. Sophomore Moncell Allen led the team in rushing against Arkansas with 46 yards on seven carries, and Coach Rich Brooks said Dixon is starting to get his legs back after dealing with a nagging ankle injury the past couple of weeks.
"Now that we're minus Locke, those guys will get more reps and we need production from those guys," Brooks said. "Moncell will get more carries, and Tony ran better (against Arkansas) than he's run in awhile. He seems to have the spring back in his step. It would be very helpful, because of his of his experience, if we could get the quickness and explosiveness back in his game."
While Smith, Dixon and Locke are more of the slashing, speed-type backs, the 5-foot-7, 225-pound Allen is a pure bruiser. Phillips likes the contrast Allen brings, but he'd also like Allen to get on the perimeter more and take less punishment since the Cats are now down to three scholarship tailbacks. Phillips said fullback John Conner could line up at tailback if need be.
"When (Allen) gets in the secondary, he's running over people," Phillips said. "Sometimes that can slow you down and give the defense a chance to rally around you. We'd like for him to get on the edge and break tackles that way. The first (defender) is usually not going to tackle him because he's going to run over him, but it also slows him down. He's got to know when to run over a guy and when to get on the edge and run around him."
Cat Walk in Gainesville
The Cat Walk will take place before Saturday's UK-Florida game at The Swamp. Team buses should arrive in front of Gate 15 around 10:15 a.m.