Kentucky football running back Chris Rodriguez unavailable for season opener

Brooks Holton Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

Kentucky football will be without one of the most prolific running backs in program history for at least the opening game of the 2022 season.

Senior Chris Rodriguez, who in July pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence, is unavailable for the opener Saturday against Miami (Ohio), head coach Mark Stoops said Monday at his weekly news conference.

Stoops did not confirm that Rodriguez is suspended and did not speak to the running back's status beyond the opening week. He declined to say whether Rodriguez's absence is related to the DUI arrest or some other issue.

Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. warms up during the Kentucky Football Fan Day open practice on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022, at Joe Craft Football Training Center in Lexington, Kentucky.

Though Stoops said he expects "a few (players) to have multiple-game suspensions," he declined to confirm any individual player is suspended, citing players' rights. In addition to Rodriguez, Stoops confirmed that linebacker Jordan Wright, a projected starter absent from the opening depth chart, is among the unavailable players.

Stoops said he suspects "maybe" one unavailable player will return for next week's game at Florida, but declined to elaborate, saying he'll "address it next week."

Stoops conceded he's not the sole decision-maker with regard to his players' availability. Earlier this month, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart said the resolution of Rodriguez's status would be "a collective decision."

“I’ve been in tune to this situation for a while," Stoops said. "I haven’t been withholding. It’s just things change. … Things evolve, things change. Information comes and goes. There’s different layers to things. That means there’s multiple different entities involved. I prefer not to dig anymore into it. I’m not withholding anything. I’ve been pretty in tune with what I felt like things were going to happen, but I have bosses and they have bosses and so on.”

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Rodriguez was arrested just after 3 a.m. May 8 and charged with driving under the influence and careless driving. According to an arrest report, Rodriguez was stopped by a University of Kentucky police officer after his vehicle was spotted traveling south on Nicholasville Road near campus without its taillights illuminated and failed to stay in its designated lane.

Rodriguez pleaded guilty to operating a motor vehicle under the influence during a July 5 pretrial hearing, online court records show. The plea requires he pay a $200 fine plus more than $700 in court costs by Dec. 13. His driver’s license will be suspended for four to six months in Kentucky.

A native of McDonough, Georgia, Rodriguez ranks sixth on Kentucky's career rushing yards list (2,740) after running for 1,379 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The senior is 1,133 yards behind Benny Snell Jr.'s school record (3,873) but faces an uphill climb to eclipse that mark with the suspension looming.

Who are Kentucky football's options at running back without Chris Rodriguez?

Kentucky’s Kavosiey Smoke scores a touchdown against Tennessee.
Nov. 6, 2012

At the start of fall camp, first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said Kentucky would approach the running back position "a little bit by committee, no matter what."

Without Rodriguez, that committee includes seniors Kavosiey Smoke and Ramon Jefferson, an FCS transfer from Sam Houston State; juniors Mike Drennen II and JuTahn McClain; and redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright.

Smoke and Jefferson were the starter and backup, respectively, on UK's first depth chart, released Monday.

Smoke served as Rodriguez's primary backup during the 2021 season and rushed for 416 yards and four touchdowns on 81 carries. McClain was second to Rodriguez in receptions out of the backfield with six, and no other running back caught more than two passes.

“I like the group, but it’s unproven,” 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."

Jefferson, who rushed for 1,155 yards and 13 touchdowns with Sam Houston last season, has earned high praise from starting quarterback Will Levis as he prepares to make the jump to the SEC.

University of Kentucky running back Ramon Jefferson. Aug. 3, 2022

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Levis has described the the 5-foot-10, 215-pound native of the Bronx as "a bowling ball" and "a little Mighty Mouse." Jefferson's NFL comp, according to the quarterback, is Doug Martin, a tailback who played seven seasons in the league after a college career at Boise State.

"He's got a good feel," Levis said. "You see he bounces it when he's supposed to bounce it; he cuts when he's supposed to cut."

Drennen, who posted 17 yards and a touchdown on seven carries last season, also has potential to line up as a slot receiver. The 5-11 running back said he isn't sure where Scangarello prefers him on the field but said the coach knows he’s "damn good at both."

A three-star prospect out of North Hardin High School, Wright offers a close approximation to Rodriguez’s mix of size and skillset. In four games during his redshirt season, the 6-foot, 217-pounder rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown on nine attempts.

Kentucky running back JuTahn McClain (17) is tackled short of the goal line by Georgia defensive back Lewis Cine (16) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021 in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Considering Scangarello's desire to find more ways to get Kentucky's versatile stable of running backs involved on offense, the title of RB1 may be a formality in Rodriguez's absence if the Wildcats opt for a matchup-based rotation.

“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.” 

Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton. Reach Louisville basketball reporter Brett Dawson at bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites