Kentucky football took a major step forward in the passing game during the 2021 season, but there’s no denying that the Wildcats’ offensive identity under head coach Mark Stoops has been rooted in a physical ground attack.
Heading into the 2022 campaign, however, UK’s running back room is clouded by uncertainty. Its leader, senior Chris Rodriguezis still dealing with the fallout from his May arrest on DUI charges, and it’s unclear if his playing time will be affected as the case progresses through court.
Rodriguez is coming off a stellar junior season, during which he rushed for 1,379 yards, averaged 6.1 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns – nine on the ground, three through the air. That kind of productivity will be essential in establishing balance for Kentucky’s passing attack under new offensive coordinator Rich Scangarellobut it’s not a guarantee with the senior’s status up in the air.
As the countdown to kickoff nears the 60-day mark, UK has used the NCAA transfer portal to bolster its contingency plan to account for Rodriguez’s potential absence in the backfield.
The Wildcats on Tuesday added former Sam Houston State running back Ramon Jeffersonan AP third-team FCS All-American in 2021. The Bronx, New York, native originally planned to transfer to Colorado but decommitted in May.
A June 27 roster update from UK also revealed another new face: Dee Beckwithwho arrives in Lexington after seeing limited action during two seasons with Southeastern Conference rival Tennessee.
The additions of Jefferson and Beckwith bring Kentucky up to seven running backs for coach John Settle to work with. Including Rodriguez, the Wildcats also return senior Kavosiey Smokejuniors Mike Drennen and JuTahn McClain and sophomore La’Vell Wright.
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Here’s a look at what both Jefferson and Beckwith could offer UK in the event Rodriguez misses time:
Sans Rodriguez, Jefferson has more in-game experience than any other member of Kentucky’s running back room heading into his final season of collegiate eligibility.
Jefferson has also produced on big stages, helping lead Sam Houston to the 2020-21 FCS national championship with 96 yards on 16 attempts in the title game against South Dakota State. When the AP named Jefferson a third-team FCS All-American, Bearkats head coach KC Keeler called the running back “one of the best I’ve ever coached.”
The sixth-year player hasn’t faced a full slate against SEC competition, but Jefferson’s stats tell the story of a workhorse back who is no stranger to getting 15-plus carries every Saturday. In 2021, he amassed 1,155 yards on 173 attempts – good for fifth in the FCS – and rushed for 13 touchdowns.
By comparison, Kentucky’s running backs not named Chris Rodriguez combined for 744 yards and six touchdowns on 131 carries during the 2021 season. Quarterback Will Levis had his number called on the ground more than any of Rodriguez’s backups.
“He is a good fit for our scheme,” Stoops said of Jefferson on Tuesday in a statement from UK Athletics. “He’s tough, physical and durable and we are looking forward to developing him even further under our coaching staff.”
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Sound like someone familiar?
The comparisons to Rodriguez start with Jefferson’s frame. Sam Houston State’s website lists the running back at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds. Kentucky lists Rodriguez at 5-11 and 224 pounds.
That size gives both players low centers of gravity, which Jefferson, like Rodriguez, uses to bounce off would-be tacklers as if they were practice shields. Jefferson also shares his new teammate’s patience when allowing running lanes to develop at the line of scrimmage.
When those lanes open, Jefferson gets downhill in a hurry. Good luck wrangling him to the ground on first contact – and catching him when he reaches the second level.
Jefferson may also prove to be a quick learner of Kentucky’s offense. That’s because he started his college career at Maine running a scheme devised by former Wildcats offensive coordinator Liam Cohen.
One of the reasons Stoops said he hired Scangarello to replace Cohen when he returned to the NFL ranks after the 2021 season was the “continuity” he said Scangarello offers as a descendant of Cohen’s coaching tree. There will obviously be differences between both coaches’ systems, but Jefferson could be familiar with any concepts Scangarello chooses to carry over from Cohen’s brief stop in Lexington.
The one area where Jefferson stands to improve is as a receiving threat. The running back recorded just five catches for 37 yards in 22 games with Sam Houston.
If Rodriguez is sidelined at any point of the 2022 season and Jefferson beats out his competition during fall camp, expect the transfer to be in line for the bulk of the carries out of the Wildcats’ backfield because he has handled that kind of workload before. Like Rodriguez, Jefferson’s skillset pairs nicely opposite the speedy Smoke, who could alternate series and sub out Jefferson when the offense faces third-and-long scenarios.
Unlike Jefferson, Beckwith arrives at Kentucky looking to establish his identity as a running back.
During his two seasons with Tennessee, Beckwith carried the ball four times for a total of 27 yards. Despite injuries to multiple running backs ahead of him on the Volunteers’ depth chart in 2021, the 6-foot-5, 227-pound Alabama native had just one rushing attempt.
Beckwith spent time at quarterback, running back and wide receiver as a three-star athlete prospect at Florence High School. He also bounced around multiple positions at UT in addition to running back but saw the field most on special teams.
“He never fit at safety or linebacker on defense or tight end on offense,” Tennessee football beat reporter Adam Sparks of the Knoxville News Sentinel wrote upon learning Tuesday of Beckwith’s transfer to Kentucky, which the running back didn’t announce on social media.
So where does Beckwith fit at UK heading into his first season with the Wildcats? For now, the redshirt sophomore likely has a steep hill to climb if he wants to take carries from Smoke, Jefferson and the rest of the running back room in the event that Rodriguez isn’t available.
With an impressive showing at camp, Beckwith could feasibly jump Drennen, McClain and / or Wright on the depth chart, but he remains a player whose biggest value in the immediate future comes on special teams. Still, having a guy with the size of a linebacker and the quickness of a running back could come in handy for UK when it comes to cutting down speedy kickoff and punt returners.
Reach recruiting reporter Brooks Holton at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.