By LARRY VAUGHT
There was a time when it looked like running back would be the deepest position not only on the Kentucky offense, but perhaps on the entire team. Now that has dramatically changed.
First, Justin Taylor, who orignally committed to Alabama before signing with UK, transferred after his spring practice without ever playing a down at UK. Apparently he felt he would be buried on the loaded depth chart, especially after getting just four carries in the spring game and hearing coach Mark Stoops say he had a “lot of work to do” to get on the field.
Still, that left senior Raymond Sanders, one of UK’s most impressive players in the spring, and Jonathan George returning along with sophomores Dyshawn Mobley, who saw limited action in 2012, and Josh Clemons, who sat out 2012 with a knee injury after a banner start to his freshman season in 2011.
Throw in freshmen JoJo Kemp and Khalid Thomas and UK seemed loaded both in numbers and talent at that spot.
Then news broke Thursday that Thomas had been booted off the team along with his brother, sophomore linebacker Pancho Thomas, for violation of a team rule. But an even bigger blow came Friday when UK confirmed that Clemons had been hurt during workouts and is scheduled to have a MRI.
“One position where we have some quality depth is running back,” said new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown at the Louisville Quarterback Club in June.
He cited Clemons for having a “huge” game in UK’s Blue-White Game to end spring practice and that he showed the form he did in 2011 when he rushed for 279 yards in six games before tearing the meniscus in his knee against South Carolina. He had hoped to play last season, but the knee did not respond and coach Joker Phillips opted to redshirt him.
Clemons had game-changing ability when healthy because of his speed, strength and moves. His first collegiate touchdown was a 14-yard run against Western Kentucky that proved to be the game-winning score. He had an 87-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan, the longest scoring run by a UK player since 1970 and the fourth longest in school history. But perhaps the game where he proved he was for real came when he gained 69 yards against LSU, which had one of the nation’s top defenses in 2011.
He was the Class AAAA offensive player of the year in Georgia as a senior when he ran for 2,000 yards and 25 scores and finished his prep career with 3,585 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns.
Kentucky is not saying Clemons is seriously hurt. But any setback is not good news for him and knowing he’s scheduled for a MRI is not a sign of good things to come, either.
The Wildcats still have backs Brown can use in his offense.
“Raymond (Sanders) had the best spring of any back. He is an all-purpose guy. He makes people miss. He catches balls. He can do a lot of things in our offense,” Brown said.
He’s rushed for 1,078 yards on 233 carries in his three-year career and last year gained 669 yards on 125 attempts. He’s caught 39 passes for 238 yards and can also return punts or kickoffs.
George has rushed for 737 yards and six scores in three years. He’s a bigger, stronger back than Sanders, but also has speed.
“George is kind of a lunch-pail player and just goes about his business, which I like,” Brown said.
Mobley was a rushing machine in Tennessee during his prep career and got 41 carries for 184 yards last season. At 220 pounds, he’s a big back that Brown likes to have available.
“Mobley is young and physical,” Brown said.
Kemp could be the wild card, especially in Brown’s offense. He rushed 255 times as a senior in Florida for 1,469 yards and 23 touchdowns after running 178 times for 1,163 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. He rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns on a game televised by ESPN2, which featured several Division I prospects on defense.
“I think JoJo Kemp could be a factor as well,” Brown said.
That’s a likely depth chart of Sanders, George, Mobley and Kemp entering preseason practice — and the order might change by Aug. 31 when UK opens the season against Western Kentucky. Brown may also opt to use Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons in the backfield at times and fullback D.J. Warren also impressed Brown during spring practice. The offense may even occasionally have a tight end lined up in the backfield.
But what once seemed like the deepest position on UK’s offense is taking some hits and for a team that struggled to score points last year, that’s not good news even with an offense as successful as what Brown’s offense has been.