With Chris Rodriguez's status uncertain, Kentucky football looks for running back depth

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — If you’d hoped for some Chris Rodriguez clarity, Mark Stoops at least didn’t keep you waiting Wednesday. 

The question came early in Stoops’ news conference at Kentucky football media day. And the Wildcats coach quickly sidestepped talk about his star running back, who’s practicing with the team but whose playing availability has been uncertain this summer

“I really don't have any comment on Chris's status at this point,” Stoops said, one question into his kickoff media availability. 

And that was that. 

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But while nobody much talked about Rodriguez — who last month plead guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence — his presence was notable, such as it was. 

He posed for a team picture in the stands at Kroger Field but was not made available for interviews. Stoops has declined — including last month at SEC Media Days — to comment on the running back’s playing status. 

But while nobody had much to say about Rodriguez on Wednesday, running backs were a topic of conversation. 

Rodriguez is a crucial cog in the Kentucky offense, coming off a junior season in which he carried 225 times for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns. 

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But whether the Wildcats are seeking depth behind him or an indefinite replacement for him, the rest of the running back room figures to play a key role in preseason camp. 

The Cats will get long looks at a corps that includes experience in senior Kavosiey Smoke; upside in redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright and juniors Mike Drennen and JuTahn McClain; and intrigue in senior transfer Ramon Jefferson. 

“I like the group, but it’s unproven,” first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said. “That'll be one of the big things to come out of this camp. We'll see who earns the right and the ability to touch it the most. And I imagine it'll be a little bit by committee, no matter what.” 

Stoops said his staff feels “just fine” about the running back group. 

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Strong enough, apparently, that Kentucky won’t feature Tennessee transfer Dee Beckwith there. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound transfer — who played both wideout and running back for the Volunteers — is listed on the UK roster at wide receiver and did interviews Wednesday with that group. 

But Beckwith said he could play some tight end, and he hasn’t abandoned running back. 

Kentucky’s Kavosiey Smoke celebrates with Wan’Dale Robinson after scoring a touchdown against Tennessee Nov. 6, 2022. Smoke is among the UK running backs who could see more opportunity depending on star Chris Rodriguez's playing status.

“They showed me some clips of how they wanted to use me, how they wanted to get me out on mismatches, how I could win against smaller defensive backs,” Beckwith said. “I’m willing to take some handoffs, because I’m still comfortable with that from UT. Anything that can get me the ball, anything that can get us on the scoreboard, I’ll do it.” 

Drennen also could line up outside and said he isn’t sure if Scangarello prefers him out of the backfield or in the slot, but said the coach knows he’s “damn good at both.” 

That underscores Scangarello’s plan to involve a versatile pack of backs in new ways.

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Quarterback Will Levis completed 233 passes last season to 16 different players, but Rodriguez led the running backs with 13 catches. McClain was second with six. No other running back caught more than two. 

Whoever’s seeing time in the backfield this fall, the plan is to expand that piece of the offense. 

"I think getting them involved the passing game, too, is gonna be something I’m looking forward to,” Levis said. “I got a lot of them catches in the spring, and I’m looking forward to keeping just feeding them the rock throughout camp.”

The competition for the rock figures to be fierce. 

Rodriguez is “there with us every single day,” Wright said. In that sense, he said, “nothing’s really changed.” Still, there are opportunities for as long as his status is up in the air. 

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“Chris is in the room just like anybody else,” McClain said. “Coach really wants us to compete with one another, make everybody else better. Whether Chris gonna be there or not, we’re still gonna do our thing and make everything happen.”

Scangarello’s hope is that no matter who’s on the field, the Cats’ backs will make a variety of things happen. Rodriguez or not, he plans to give the running backs in his room plenty to do. 

“They're all a little different, which is what we like,” Scangarello said. “We put people in situations to play to their strengths. And so we got route runners and pass catchers, we get some thumpers and we got guys with some speed, some guys that'll run you over. So it's a good group.”