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August 18, 2008

Kentucky has depth at tailback

Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks will tell you that he's never had such a stable of running backs.

"I love our four tailbacks," he said. "I haven't been on a college team when I've had this many choices at running back going into fall camp - with four, what I would say, quality players at that position. That is our deepest position. We can go four deep and feel very confident with whoever lines up."

But it's not the running prowess of Tony Dixon, Derrick Locke, Alfonso Smith and Moncell Allen that will determine who gets the bulk of the carries this season. That will come down to which of the fours are able to catch passes, too.

"I'm prone to have one featured back if somebody can step forward and make a lot of great plays, running and receiving because we do like for our tailbacks to catch the ball," Brooks said. "They have to be able to do four things: make good runs, hang onto the ball, catch the ball and stay healthy."

To appreciate the importance for UK running backs to catch the ball, one need only look to UK's last game - a 35-28 victory over Florida State. In that Music City Bowl victory, senior tailback Rafael Little led the Cats with eight receptions - including a touchdown.

Heading into fall camp, none of the four tailbacks had distinguished themselves as a potent replacement for Little.

"This is something all of our backs are going to have to work on," Brooks said. "We sometimes like to check to a pass to the tailback in certain situations. If we can't catch it, we won't be checking to it as much. That will hurt us offensively if we can't have that as part of the package. We also can't be worried about which tailback is in the game as to whether or not we can make that check."

To the casual observer, it all seems so simple. After all, we're talking about tremendous athletes being asked only to haul in a short, soft pass while their wide receiver counterparts are required to master the deep routes.

"You think catching the football is easy?" Brooks asked. "Well, it's not, particularly when you're turning in all kinds of different directions, hand-eye coordination, whether you have stiff hands or soft hands, if you catch the ball on your fingertips or in the palm of your hand.

"Everybody has different skills and talents, but this is something we will work on and work on this fall."

Regardless of the questions, the running game remains a clear strength of the 2008 UK football team as it adjusts to the graduation of quarterback Andre Woodson, tight end Jacob Tamme and wideouts Keenan Burton and Stevie Johnson.

Locke, a sophomore, is the top returning rusher with 521 yards and five touchdowns last season. Next is Dixon, now a senior, who had 411 yards and four touchdowns. He was slowed for much of the year by hip, shoulder and ankle injuries, and suffered a sprained knee ligament during spring practice last April.

Smith only had 149 yards, but a team-best 7.1 yards per carry average. He missed three games to an ankle sprain. His biggest splash to date came with a 170-yard rushing performance in UK's Blue-White game last spring.

Lastly, Allen had 39 yards in limited duty and was slowed throughout the season by a broken thumb that forced him to play in a cast for much of the year.

"Moncell can break tackles," Brooks said. "I know our defensive backs never want to see him break though the line of scrimmage because they hate tackling him, or trying to tackle him I should say."

Not to be forgotten is UK's fullback, junior John Conner, who is called into duty when the Cats go to a two-back set. He touched the ball only 13 times, but four of those went for touchdowns - including a catch against Louisville.

"It will vary game to game, but we're looking at 20 to 30 snaps possibly in two backs and then you go to the one back," Brooks said. "We're a multiple-set offense, and you need a good fullback. We have a good fullback in John Conner."

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