How Chris Rodriguez's absence – and his presence – impact Kentucky football's opener
LEXINGTON — Since they first arrived on campus together, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke have been swapping notes.
The Kentucky football running backs “chop it up” and talk shop regularly, Smoke said this week, and as the Wildcats’ season opener approaches he figures they’ll have plenty to discuss.
The conversations won’t change, even if the circumstances have.
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When the Cats take the field against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday at 7 p.m., it’ll be Smoke starting at running back. Rodriguez and his 2,739 career rushing yards will be sidelined, unavailable seemingly due to a suspension, though UK coach Mark Stoops has remained vague about the nature of Rodriguez’s absence.
But while Rodriguez can’t play, he’s still carrying his weight.
He’s been a presence all week, Smoke said, as he awaits word on when he can get back on the field.
“He's very supportive,” Smoke said. “Chris been at every meeting, been at every practice. He even gets reps on the scout (team). He's very supportive. He's staying around the facility. So he's not close-minded, not just shutting himself off.”
Rodriguez pleaded guilty this summer to a DUI charge, but it’s unclear if that’s the reason he’ll start the season sidelined.
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At his game-week news conference Monday, Stoops said he expects “a few” of his players to have “multiple-game suspensions,” but when asked a follow-up question about suspensions told a reporter “I didn’t say suspended; you did. They are unavailable to play.”
Stoops would not confirm whether an issue beyond the DUI arrest led to Rodriguez being unavailable. And he didn’t provide a timetable for the running back’s return, saying decisions involve university personnel besides him — “I have bosses and they have bosses and so on,” he said — and that he’ll address player availability again next week.
Linebacker Jordan Wright is the only other player Stoops confirmed is unavailable for Saturday’s game. Stoops said he expects one of his unavailable players to return next week but did not clarify which.
The expectation has been that Rodriguez will miss multiple games. Still, the senior — who ran for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns last season — was among seven Wildcats named this week as team captains.
Rodriguez received that honor despite his absence, transfer running back Ramon Jefferson said, because “anywhere he goes in the building you feel his presence.” Jefferson — who enters Saturday second on the depth chart behind Smoke — said Rodriguez is “someone that everybody on the team looks up to and respects.”
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“Sometimes after a play I'll go to Chris and just lean on him, like, 'What you think you would have did on that play?’” Jefferson said. “Everybody kind of feeds off each other's energy. So he's helping us get coached up.”
Though teammates have lauded his assistance in depth-chart absentia, Kentucky figures to miss Rodriguez on Saturday. Miami’s defense allowed 4 yards per carry last season, a solid number that matched Kentucky’s.
But the Wildcats have options to fill in for as long as Rodriguez is gone.
Smoke and Jefferson proved themselves to coaches over the course of camp, but “we have a lot of good players” at running back, Stoops said. More than two will see the field, and with talented backups including JuTahn McClain and La’Vell Wright waiting in the wings, the depth chart could change week to week even without a Rodriguez return.
Jefferson — a former FCS All-American at Sam Houston State — is a newcomer who shined in Kentucky’s final scrimmage, scoring a touchdown and helping cement coaches’ feelings about him over the course of preseason.
Smoke is a veteran with 34 games to his name. Saturday will be his second start. He’s rushed for 1,306 career yards, 30th all-time at UK. But the sense is that he’s made a significant move this camp.
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Starting is “no biggie to me, for real,” Smoke said, adding that he considers coming off the bench “more exciting,” that “it gives you more juice.”
But Rich Scangarello, UK’s first-year offensive coordinator sees the start as significant.
"What I love about it is, he had to really fight for it,” Scangarello said.
And though Rodriguez’s circumstances played a part, Stoops said Smoke has done the right things with the opportunity. He’s taken coaching without taking it personally. He’s understood the expectations coaches have on him and accepted the pressure.
“I’m proud of the way he responded the last couple of weeks because he didn’t start out there,” Stoops said. “He didn’t start out in the No. 1 spot. Whether Chris was there or not, he’s worked his way.”