Kentucky football opened preseason practice this week with little clarification about the status of star running back Chris Rodriguez, at least publicly.
“I really don’t have any comment on Chris’s status at this point,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said during his Media Day news conference Wednesday.
In July, Rodriguez pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence. He was arrested in May after being stopped by a UK police officer while driving on Nicholasville Road near Kroger Field.
Like he did at SEC Media Days in July, Stoops declined to provide an update on Rodriguez’s status, but the preseason second-team All-SEC selection still dominated much of the conversation at UK’s Media Day.
Stoops, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, quarterback Will Levis and the Wildcats’ other running backs all dismissed any concern about the position out of hand.
“We feel just fine about it,” Stoops said. “We feel like there’s some really solid players there that have a chance to break out and do some really good things. … All those guys we have confidence in.”
Rodriguez’s status for the start of the season could be significant for Kentucky’s chances to push Georgia in the SEC East race.
The McDonough, Georgia, native is the SEC’s top returning rusher after totaling 1,379 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He enters the season sixth on UK’s career rushing yards list (2,740). Rodriguez needs 1,134 yards to break Benny Snell’s career rushing record.
Kentucky’s September schedule includes three non-conference games the Wildcats will be projected to win with or without Rodriguez available, but his presence could represent a significant boost to Kentucky’s chances in a week-two game at Florida. Kentucky’s roster includes five other scholarship running backs, but none can rival Rodriguez’s experience.
“I like the group, but it’s unknown,” Scangarello said. “That will be one of the big things to come out of this camp and see who earns the right and the ability to touch it the most. I imagine it will be a little bit by committee, no matter what, but yeah, I’m excited about the entire group.”
Scangarello is particularly excited about the versatility of the group of running back options.
Rodriguez built his reputation around a bone-crushing running style that saw him run through tackles, rarely going down on first contact. Senior Kavosiey Smoke, the most experienced returner other than Rodriguez, is the speed threat of the group with 11 rushes of at least 20 yards in his career.
Junior JuTahn McClain looked like the leader in the race to serve as Rodriguez’s primary backup at the end of spring practice. He was held out of action early last season and played only limited snaps even after returning when burglary charges resulting from a fight at an off-campus UK fraternity house against him and several teammates were dropped, but former offensive coordinator Liam Coen had originally planned to make heavy use of his ability to play both in the backfield and as a slot receiver.
Junior Mike Drennen brings similar versatility after starting his UK career at wide receiver. Their pass-catching ability could be particularly important with Scangarello placing an emphasis on using the running backs in the passing game on his offense.
“I got a lot of them catches in the spring and looking forward to keep feeding them the rock throughout camp,” Levis said.
After recording two carries of at least 40 yards in his nine carries last season, redshirt freshman LaVell Wright could be a darkhorse candidate to separate himself in the rotation. Sam Houston transfer Ramon Jefferson, a third-team FCS All-American last season, also joins the group after totaling almost 4,000 rushing yards in four seasons at the FCS level.
Jefferson said UK coaches did not sell him on any extra carries that might be available due to Rodriguez’s uncertain status during the recruiting process this summer. Instead, it was Rodriguez’s own success that helped draw him to Lexington.
“He’s a model player, great person,” Jefferson said. “He’s the best in the conference, in the best conference in the country. Just looking at him, at a player with his success, you can only just model after him.
Rodriguez and Smoke were not available for interviews at the UK’s annual Media Day, but the other scholarship running backs echoed the same approach to the uncertainty hanging over the position.
“You’re supposed to come to work every day ready to be on the field,” McClain said. “Whether Chris is going to be there or not, we’ve got to be ready to have the same mindset to come out here and attack every day like it’s our last.”