Entering the 2008 season, the perceived strength of the Kentucky offense was its running game.
Sure, they lost Rafael Little to the Tennessee Titans, but Derrick Locke had showed signs of brilliance during his freshman campaign and the team was also returning Tony Dixon and Alphonso Smith.
To be successful, Kentucky needed the ground game to step up because of its unproven air attack. That running game never really emerged.
The Wildcats went the entire season without a 100-yard rusher, the season-high being a 96-yard performance by Locke against Norfolk State.
At times, the best running threat was a true freshman wide receiver (Randall Cobb) who was forced to play quarterback simply because they couldn’t get the ball moving on the ground or through the air.
Then, just seven games into the season against Arkansas, Locke went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Will Kentucky be able to rely on a rehabbing Locke or the speedy Smith in 2009?
The Favorite: Alphonso Smith
Smith, the 6-foot-1, 213-pound redshirt senior out of Waggener High School, has fought through position battles and injuries throughout his career in Lexington. Now in his senior season, it looks as if he will be the feature back, at least early on.
Last season—despite dealing with nagging injuries—marked the first time he appeared in every game. He finished the season with 313 rushing yards and 204 receiving yards, while spending most of his time as a backup to Locke and Tony Dixon.
His 204 receiving yards were second on the team on only 16 catches. When he caught the ball out of the backfield, he averaged an impressive 12 yards a pop.
In his senior season, he has not only taken over the comedic duties of the departing Dicky Lyons Jr., but he is also showing a more mature, team-oriented side. He realizes that for the team to have success, he must be successful as well.
He has also realized the importance of teaching everything he has learned to the incoming backs, as Little and Dixon did.
Smith has always had the speed to be a dynamic back but his desire to initiate contact at the end of runs often leads him to the sideline. He realizes he needs to stay healthy and on the field, but will he be able to alter his running style to do so?
The Contender I: Derrick Locke
If not for the knee injury last season, Locke, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior, would probably be the feature back for the Cats and a 1,000-yard rushing season would be a possibility. Rafael Little is the only player to have a 1,000-yard season in Rich Brooks’ tenure, and he did it in 2005 and 2007.
After missing action in spring practice, he returned to workouts in early June and proclaimed he would be ready for the opener against Miami (OH) on Sept. 5. Despite this, expect the Kentucky coaching staff to be careful with Locke, as he is just now expected to start making cuts this week.
Not big in size, Locke just keeps trudging and is not weary at all about running between the tackles. Once he gets through the first and second line of defense, the high school track star has the speed to take it to the house.
Like Smith, he also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. In just seven games of action last year he had 23 receptions, which was good for third on the team.
With their receiving corps still being relatively young and inexperienced, expect whoever is quarterbacking the Cats to look for Locke and Smith in the flat consistently.
If healthy, Smith and Locke, can provide an explosive 1-2 punch.
The Contender II: Moncell Allen
Turtle Power! Moncell Allen, aka Turtle Man, is a 5-foot-7, 225-pound running back that looks more like a bowling ball than a football player. If Smith and Locke both prove healthy, Allen could still contribute and provide the thunder to their lightning.
To say he is powerful and compact is a little bit of an understatement. The Turtle is a beast, and despite his bulk, he also has the quickness to break away after getting through the line. A workhorse, he needs multiple carries to be successful as he wears down defenses.
He has been held back by injury and academic questions, and is sometimes out of shape, but he showed up slimmed down to 225. He could be a breakout candidate and will compete with fullback John Connor for short yardage and goal-line carries.
Also, look for the Kentucky coaching staff to give Connor more carries this season. I know his slogan is, “He Will Block You,” but it appears they want him to get more touches.
The Dark Horse: CoShik Williams
Williams, the red-shirt freshman walk-on from Hiram, Ga. (same high school as Trevard Lindley) made a name for himself in the spring with 29 carries for 140 yards and a TD in two scrimmages. In the spring game, he ran eight times for 56 yards and a TD.
He is on the smaller side at 5-foot-9, 180-pounds, but showed good speed and quickness in the spring game.
The True Freshman I: Donald Russell
One of three true freshman RBs, of which definitely one and maybe two will play, depending how Locke comes along.
At 5-foot-11, 205-pounds, from Palm Beach City, Fla., Russell mainly played cornerback with spot duty as tailback in high school. He still managed almost 1,900 yards and 21 TDs combined during his junior and senior season.
He also ran track in high school, with his best time in the 100-meter a 10.7, which is absolutely moving for a guy of his size.
The True Freshman II: Dakotah Tyler
Tyler is 5-foot-11, 205-pounds from Indy, and is hopefully the beginning of a Indy pipeline, along with Morgan Newton. He attended high school with Newton at Pike before Newton transferred to Carmel.
He committed to Cincy as a DB but wanted a chance to play RB, which UK obliged. He played strong safety as a junior, then QB as a senior, rushing for more than 1,300 yards and 18 TDs, while throwing for 800 yards and eight more TDs.
At the scout.com combine before his senior season, he ran a 4.38, with a 36-inch vertical leap and had a 500-pound squat lift.
The True Freshman III: Jonathan George
At 5-foot-10, 196 pounds out of Lincoln, Ala., George accounted for almost 3,300 all-purpose yards and 26 TDs as a senior, including five kickoff returns and four punt returns—all of this after missing most of his junior year due to injury.
George is an all-around athlete. He won the wrestling state championship his junior and senior year, along with being state champion in the 200-meter as a senior and the 400-meter and the 4×400 as a junior.
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