Heading into 2008, Kentucky’s backfield was thought to be one of the best in the SEC; they returned four proven and capable backs in Tony Dixon, Alfonso Smith, Derrick Locke, and Moncell Allen.
With the depth and experience these four brought to the table it was thought that Kentucky would become a smash mouth type of football team, but this never to came to be, as the running backs and offense struggled mightily.
Part of the struggles can be attributed to the fact that teams last year did not respect our passing game and continually would load seven and eight men in the box.
With an improved passing attack this year, one would be led to believe that this could be a huge year for our backs.
The Returning Cats
Alfonso Smith returns for his senior year for the Wildcats and will look to build on last year. I thought he would be the feature back for the Cats last year because of his speed and athleticism.
Although he showed flashes of brilliance during the season, especially in the Arkansas game, where he caught a screen pass, made one move, and outran the entire Razorback defense for a touchdown, for the most part, he was never much of a factor for the Cats.
For the Wildcats to become a factor in the SEC, Smith needs to be able to pick 70-80 yards a game for the Cats and catch a pass or two out of the backfield.
Smith has the type of speed and burst to hit a home run on every single play. I look for Smith to have the best year of his career.
Derrick Locke still remains a mystery after going down in the Arkansas game with a torn ACL that sidelined him for the rest of last season and spring ball.
Before he went down, Locke was the only back that went for over 40 yards a game, and the Cats will look for a lot more from him this year.
Locke. who is a fan favorite ever since he came in the epic win over LSU in 2007, in which he gave a spark to the Cats that they desperately needed.
It will be very interesting to see how he comes back from the injury and to see if he has lost any of his speed or shiftiness.
If all is well with Locke this year than you would expect him to be able to provide a spark for the offense that the Cats so desperately need.
I look for Locke to post very similar numbers to what he put up last year with two or three games where he will be used as the feature back and will go for over 100 yards. Locke could be the key to a successful season.
Moncell Allen missed the Liberty Bowl last season due to academic reasons, but all accounts point to Allen being able to participate in spring practice and be ready for the 2009 season.
Allen is very different type of runner than Smith and Locke, as he is a third-down back who you can bring in to pound the ball inside and pick up the tough yards.
Just like last season, I see it being difficult for Allen to see significant playing time besides in short-yard situations.
While he is more of a bruiser than a speedster, he can bust the ball outside and pick up long gains which I look for him to do on more than one occasion this year.
Donald Russell, Jonathan George, and Dakotah Tyler will all come and fight for whatever playing time is to be left from the above-mentioned players.
Russell held offers from home state Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pittsburgh and was a top 50 running back in the 2009 class.
George was a surprise signee and not much was known about him, but I am very excited about him as he was described as a clone to Warrick Dunn.
Tyler picked the Cats over Purdue, Cincinnati, and Indiana. Tyler looks to be a very quick and athletic back that runs a 4.4 forty and looks faster in the open field.
Hopefully, they will be able to come in and learn the system quickly and be able to provide some depth for the Cats in 2009.
For the Cats to have a successful season, they have to have consistent play out of the running backs every single game. Last year, the Cats gained less than 130 yards a game on the ground and to win in the defensive-led SEC, you have to be able to run the football.
I look for the Cats to improve their running game to around 150 yards a game this year and to force teams to try and stop the run first before the pass, which ultimately will allow Hartline and Co. more time to find the open man.
An improved rushing attack makes me believe that this team will ultimately be able to improve their SEC record and and their overall record.