UK Football

Kentucky running backs subbing themselves? Gran’s used that plan before

Wildcat running back Boom Williams (18) got around the end on Auburn defensive back Jonathan Jones. Williams scored on the opening drive but the Tigers topped Kentucky 30-27 in that October match.
Wildcat running back Boom Williams (18) got around the end on Auburn defensive back Jonathan Jones. Williams scored on the opening drive but the Tigers topped Kentucky 30-27 in that October match. Herald-Leader

Ask Eddie Gran how he’s going to manage Kentucky’s running back rotation and he shrugs.

“Well, we’ll see,” the new UK offensive coordinator said after the Cats’ first scrimmage of fall camp.

It’s an interesting question for Gran, who will be charged with the gargantuan task of managing a room full of veteran playmakers like Boom Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton, who all expect to get carries.

Add in sophomore running back Sihiem King, whose speed and ability to pick up the offense has impressed his coaches, and then two highly touted true freshman backs in Benny Snell and A.J. Rose.

So how many running backs will he play? Which ones will they be? How does he decide who gets the carries?

If those questions were asked in rapid fire secession, the 28-year coaching veteran likely would shrug once more.

He’s figured it out before and he’ll figure it out again.

One little known secret is sometimes he’s even let the running backs figure out the substitution patterns between themselves.

Gran did it in 2004, the senior seasons for star Auburn running backs Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Ronnie Brown.

“I never substituted them,” he said. “They did it on their own. Again, it comes down to, ‘If you want to be treated like a pro, act like a pro.’ That’s the bottom line. All these guys want to be treated like grown men. Well, act like it. I’m old school that way.”

It turned out pretty well for the two Auburn standouts. Williams finished that season with 1,165 yards and 12 touchdowns on 239 carries and had another 21 catches and a touchdown.

Brown had 913 yards and eight touchdowns on 153 carries with 34 catches for 313 yards and a score that way, too.

One could argue it turned out more than pretty well, really.

Brown was taken second overall in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins and Williams went three picks later to Tampa Bay.

Brown and Williams’ situation wasn’t isolated, either.

Last season at Cincinnati dealing with veteran running backs, Gran also let them sub themselves in and out.

“I only substituted them when they had a certain play and we had a package for a couple of them,” he explained of the rotation. “Then there were some guys that did things a little bit better.”

The final result was three different running backs that each had more than 100 carries and put up nearly identical yardage.

There was 5-foot-9, 202-pound Hosey Williams, who had 775 yards and four scores on 138 carries, and Mike Boone, who managed 749 yards and nine touchdowns on 104 carries.

A bigger back, Tion Green (6-foot, 230 pounds) added 729 yards and eight TDs on 151 carries.

The unique substitution plan that Gran used at Auburn and then at Cincinnati hasn’t been discussed in UK’s running backs room quite yet.

“He ain’t never talked about that, but let us do it,” an enthusiastic Jojo Kemp said in July. “Let me in, Coach!”

Not so fast, Jojo.

Gran confirmed on Friday that he’s not quite ready to do that at Kentucky. There’s a level of trust and familiarity that has to build up before he leaves the subbing to the players themselves.

“That’ll still be controlled by me,” he said of the substitution pattern. “I’ve got to get a feel for them, their endurance, how long and then there will be certain plays that I’ll use that they’ll go in just because of the play. I’ve got to see their endurance and who’s playing the best and so forth.”

In the previous attempts at it, he quickly got a feel for how many yards a player could go before he got gassed on a long drive. He’s still trying to figure that out at Kentucky.

Ultimately, Gran has said his plan is to have five running backs that are ready to go and are able to do everything asked of them in his offense.

A couple of seasons ago, he learned how necessary that was when he was down to his third and fourth running back options with the Bearcats because of injuries.

“That’s a position where you get hurt,” he said. “You get beat up. So, yeah, you’d like to have that one horse — Can you carry them, can you do something 40 times a game? There’s not very many of those nowadays. …

“So if we can get three that are dependable, then I’ll use three if they warrant it. If not, if there’s one guy that I can count on it’s going to be his show. It comes down to accountability and dependability.”

The running backs coach said he puts a lot on the players in his room. He wants them to be top-level pass protectors, good runners, understand the scheme and be comfortable with the passing tree.

“They’ve got to know every single route, where they’re going, so a running back has got a lot of things to do. If I can’t count on them, they’re not going to play,” he said.

But maybe once the season gets going and the pecking order is established, don’t be surprised to see the players getting much more of a say in the rotation.

Quarterback Drew Barker said it’s clear that the message in the running back room is “help each other.

“The running backs we’ve got now have done a great job supporting each other,” Barker said. “Coach Gran always preaches to them that they had Cadillac Williams and Rodney Brown, I think on the same team and they both went like second and fourth in the NFL Draft. They had to split catches and help each other.

“They’re really just harping on teamwork and not being selfish in that room.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Scouting the Cats: Running backs

This is the fourth of nine stories looking at the 2016 Kentucky football team position by position.

The main man: In games when Kentucky had to do without Boom Williams, the offense often looked flat and seemed predictable and easy to defend. The 5-foot-9, 196-pound speedster put up 855 yards on 121 carries and played in less than 10 games. His 7.1 yards per carry average set a new school record. If he can stay healthy and bounce back from the offseason elbow surgery, he will continue to be the Cats’ go-to player.

The supporting cast: Kentucky senior Jojo Kemp had as many touchdowns (six) as Williams and can be a dynamic playmaker as he showed in several key games the past two seasons, but coaches are looking for maturity and leadership from him moving forward. Junior Mikel Horton has bulked back up and could be a bruising, physical change of pace that could benefit the Cats. Sophomore Sihiem King was mentioned regularly in the spring and late in this fall camp as a dynamic playmaker with a quick burst. He’ll definitely be a key on special teams and will try to break into the rotation. Two true freshman back, Benny Snell and A.J. Rose, have impressed with their speed and athleticism and might be hard to keep off the field. Snell has picked up the offense quickly and could be a factor by the end of the season. They both could be stars a year or two from now.

Outlook: This is the deepest position on the field for Kentucky with a lot of options that show promise. If Williams can stay healthy and not play timid coming off that elbow surgery, he could become an elite playmaker in the Southeastern Conference and make UK’s offense go. With a veteran offensive line that returns four of five starters and has its own share of depth in the interior, this could be a big year for the UK running backs.

Scouting the Cats: Running backs

This is the fourth of nine stories looking at the 2016 Kentucky football team position by position.