Deep Dive into a Crowded Kentucky Running Back Room
The transfer portal addition of former NC State tailback Demie Sumo-Karngbaye was met with a warm reception, followed by a familiar question around the Big Blue Nation, “Another running back?”
If you include Justice Dingle, who played fullback for the Wildcats in 2022, Kentucky now has seven running backs on the roster. That’s a lot of players sharing carries. Who will be in the mix and how will they share the rock? KSR takes a deep dive into what you should expect from the Wildcat running backs in 2022.
Running Back Room Overview
Ray Davis, Redshirt Senior — Began his career at Temple, then spent the last two seasons at Vanderbilt. Injuries hampered him early in Nashville. He broke through in 2022 as one of four SEC running backs to surpass 1,000 yards on the ground last fall. The physical runner averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns.
Ramon Jefferson, Super Senior — Actually started his career playing for Liam Coen back in Maine. Transferred to Sam Houston State and became an FCS All-American. Described as a Mighty Mouse, the little rumbling, stumbling bowling ball suffered a season-ending injury on his first carry at Kentucky.
Justice Dingle, Super Senior — Started his career at Georgia Tech playing defense. Transferred to Kentucky and moved to fullback in 2022. His role is unclear in Liam Coen’s offense.
JuTahn McClain, Senior — A standout with insane numbers at Cincinnati’s Fairfield High School, McClain has struggled to stay on the field during his time at Kentucky. A two-way player that is an exceptional pass-catcher, injuries and a suspension have prevented him from playing one full season so far in Lexington.
Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, Redshirt Sophomore — Last season at NC State, his first in a significant role, DSK had two big games before the injury bug bit. Like McClain, his pass-catching ability set him apart from his peers.
La’Vell Wright, Redshirt Sophomore — The North Hardin High School product played in all 13 games in 2022, but struggled to produce in Chris Rodriguez’ absence, tallying only 76 yards in the first four games of the sesaon.
Jamarion Wilcox, Freshman — The four-star talent has the most big-play potential of the group. Clemson and Auburn tried to steal the explosive athlete at the eleventh hour, but Kentucky was able to close on the prospect that tallied over 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a high school senior.
A Year Without a Bell-Cow Back
For the last seven seasons the Big Blue Nation has grown accustomed to seeing one badass carry a heavy workload out of the backfield. Chris Rodriguez and Benny Snell are two of the three most productive running backs in school history. It may seem like it now, but those kinds of players don’t grow on trees.
This running back room does not have a player like Rodriguez or Snell that need to carry the football 20-25 times a game. The personnel also does not require the running backs to carry such a heavy load. Devin Leary is pretty good at throwing the football and he’s got some pass-catching weapons at wide receiver and tight end. The Cats were about a 60-40 running team with Benny and C-Rod in the backfield. That will be flipped with Leary throwing to Barion Brown, Dane Key and Jordan Dingle.
No Running Back is the Same
This room is filled with varying styles of runners. While there is some nuance to each player’s game — albeit somewhat unknown among the newcomers — this large group can ge broken down into smaller categories.
You need to get hard yards? Look no further. Liam Coen stated in his introductory press conference that his offense needs to be able to move the sticks by running the ball on third and short. That’s why Kentucky brought Ray Davis to Lexington. He needs to be that guy. If not, Ramon Jefferson might have the stuff to get it done between the tackles. However, it’s so difficult to project what the FCS transfer will be able to do coming off a season-ending injury.
You can’t always hand the ball off to get a first down. Some times you gotta air it out. JuTahn McClain and Demie Sumo-Karngbaye have each shown that ability at a high level, albeit in a limited capacity. Ironically, a pass-catcher’s best chance at getting on the field is proving you can also protect the passer by blocking. Whoever win the pass pro wars will likely earn the title “third down back.”
Unlike most already featured, DSK and Jamarion Wilcox have a lot of quality football left in the tank to use in Lexington. Will Kentucky rely on the old guys, or see what the young guys can put on tape? It’s difficult to read new assistant Jay Boulware, but the smart money is on the latter. The sooner UK knows what they got from the young guys in the running back room, the better.
Ways Liam Coen can Incorporate the Running Backs into the Offense
In a crowded running back room, there’s one easy way to get more guys touches: play more of them at once. With a ton of talented tight ends and wide receivers, that’s easier said than done. Nevertheless, let’s dive into how it could look and work.
The use of 21 or 22 personnel (two running backs with one or two tight ends) is not the most popular practice among college football elites, but it’s certainly one that Liam Coen can adapt. No, this isn’t a split-back, pro-style look. Imagine this for a second…
A strength of Devin Leary’s game is the ability to read and react quickly, then accurately deliver a pass down the field. The run-pass option will once again be incorporated into the Kentucky offense. With two running backs in at once — ideally one of those road-graders and a pass-catcher — Leary can choose to hand it off inside or throw it to the perimeter to make the play work. Here’s how Lincoln Riley used it to record his first signature win at Oklahoma, on the road at Ohio State with Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
The RPO was not a critical component of the offense during Liam Coen’s first stint at Kentucky. That will change in 2023, but by how much?
Kentucky Must Find Explosives
It does not matter who is lining up at running back for the Wildcats, one priority stands above the rest. Kentucky must be more explosive running the football in 2023.
There was no lightning to Chris Rodriguez’s thunder. Last fall Kentucky ranked 13th in the SEC in rushes of 20+ yards (11) and dead last in rushes of 30+ yards (2). Rodriguez accounted for eight of those 13 explosive plays.
Those statistics are startling, almost as startling as the drop between Coen and Scangarello’s offense on third down (50.6% and 5th nationally, to 34.1% and 109th nationally) and red zone offense (85.2% and 17th nationally, to 78.7% and 82nd nationally). How can you quickly reverse that horrendous trend? By creating explosive plays, particularly in the running game.
Divvying out carries in a crowded running back room is a challenge, unless one player rises to the occasion and produces big plays as soon as the season kicks off Sept. 2.