'This kid is gonna be unreal.' How Chris Rodriguez got to Kentucky, and why he's returning as FBS' highest-graded tailback
“Chris just always has this smile on his face getting up from the huddle. He’ll get pumped and everything like a football player does. But other than that, he’s all smiles, calm, cool and collected.
“Then he just runs through your face.”
Chris Rodriguez chuckled.
It wasn’t out of arrogance, rather bashfulness. The Kentucky running back was asked a question that was still new to him. Well, at least it was new enough that there wasn’t some canned answer.
How close was he to leaving for the NFL at season’s end?
“I was kind of surprised that people actually thought I was gonna leave,” Rodriguez told SDS. “But then again, I realized that I never even really put it out there that I wanted to stay.”
On one hand, it’s not surprising that Rodriguez needed to address the issue at the end of his redshirt sophomore season. In his first 3 years at Kentucky, he never started a game, much less produce a 1,000-yard season (he had a team-high 785 yards and 11 touchdowns in 9 games in 2020). Rodriguez was a few years removed from being the nation’s No. 1,156-ranked recruit who only got a Kentucky offer after his high school coach practically begged an assistant to take a closer look at him. That doesn’t exactly scream “early NFL Draft entry.”
On the other hand, Rodriguez finished his 2020 season with 480 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns in his final 4 games. Among Power 5 players with at least 100 carries, he ranked No. 6 with 6.6 yards per rush. That helped him become Pro Football Focus’ No. 2-graded FBS running back for the year. And with the exception of his 2-touchdown performance in a bowl game win against No. 23 NC State, the 225-pound back did all of his damage exclusively against SEC competition. That screams “early NFL Draft entry.”
Shortly after Rodriguez went off for 139 yards and 3 touchdowns against South Carolina in the regular-season finale, he made his way up to Mark Stoops’ office. Stoops praised his impact and told him that he loved the way he played the game. At some point in their conversation, Rodriguez told Stoops exactly what he could’ve hoped to hear.
“I don’t want you to think I’m going anywhere.”
In 2021, Rodriguez will return to Kentucky as PFF’s top-graded returning tailback in FBS. Yeah, he knows about that, but only because his family keeps tabs on his accolades for him. His reasoning for not cashing in after his breakout season and staying in school another year (at least) was twofold.
Rodriguez is a first-generation college student in his family. He wants to get his degree to set an example for his little cousins and siblings. The other reason? By virtue of never starting a game, Rodriguez never had the opportunity to see his name and picture introduced before the game on the big screen and Kroger Field. He wants that experience.
As for what he’d like to accomplish between the lines in Year 4 at Kentucky, well, that’s a bit more straightforward.
“I don’t just want to be the No. 1 returning,” Rodriguez said. “I want to be No. 1 overall guy that’s on the field at all times. I’m gonna keep working to be that guy.”
* * * *
Without 3 people, Rodriguez probably would’ve ended up playing college ball at at Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
Austin Smith was a 2-way lineman who garnered Power 5 interest before his junior season at Ola High School (McDonough, Ga.). One of those schools was Kentucky. Then-Kentucky assistant Matt House (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) was responsible for recruiting the area that covered Ola, which was 30 miles southeast of Atlanta. Before the start of spring practice in 2017, House came out to watch Smith. Smith’s coach at Ola was Jared Zito, who struck up a conversation with House.
Zito wanted to know if Kentucky was signing a running back. Just one, House said. Zito continued. “Any thoughts on Chris Rodriguez?” House scrolled through his notes, which said that the recruiting staff really wasn’t sold on the Ola tailback. Instead of letting the conversation fizzle, Zito pressed on by asking what type of back they were looking for. A bruiser between the tackles, House said. Eventually, Kentucky knew it would need a replacement for emerging underclassman Benny Snell.
House didn’t know it, but he played right into Zito’s hand with that comment. If the numbers Rodriguez racked up as a sophomore and junior weren’t enough to impress House (he had over 3,000 rushing yards and 41 touchdowns in that stretch), Zito was convinced a closer look at the film would do the trick.
“You’ve gotta watch Chris to truly appreciate him because he doesn’t wow you right away,” Zito told SDS. “He’s a guy that you appreciate because you look up and you’re like, ‘Wow, he got 6 yards on that? There was nothing there.’”
House did exactly what Zito urged him to do. That is, don’t just watch the first 3 plays of his Hudl video and jump to a conclusion. Watch more. Notice the second-level burst on his long runs. Take note of the yards after contact. Sure enough, House went deeper into Rodriguez’s highlights and told Zito he was impressed enough to come back and watch him practice. By the time House left Ola’s spring practice, he walked off the field and turned to Zito.
“You’re exactly right.”
It might seem strange that it took extra convincing to get a Power 5 program like Kentucky, which at the time had just played in its first bowl game in 6 years, to take a closer look at Rodriguez. And it wasn’t like Kentucky was just first to the party. The only major offers that Rodriguez got came via Kentucky, MSU and Ole Miss. After Rodriguez committed to Kentucky the summer going into his senior year, there wasn’t any interest from the bigger SEC programs like Florida, LSU or in-state Georgia, which saw him play multiple times but didn’t offer. It didn’t matter that Rodriguez finished his prolific high school career with 4,808 rushing yards and 67 touchdowns in the talent-rich state of Georgia.
Besides the aforementioned deeper watch needed to appreciate his skill set, Rodriguez didn’t do all the showcases and 7-on-7s. Instead of doing the full camp circuit that’s become synonymous with recruiting in the modern era, Rodriguez focused on being a 3-sport high school athlete.
“I couldn’t sit still,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to play football, I wanted to run track, I wanted to play basketball. I really wanted to play baseball, but I don’t know if I was good enough … nowadays, people just want to play football for 100% of their life. I just wanted to live my life as a kid because I knew if I made it to college and made it to the NFL, it’s like a job. You’re working for people. You’re making their money.
“I wanted to do it because I loved the game, not because I wanted to compete with other people. I wanted to have fun. If you do that, then it’s eventually not gonna be fun to you anymore.”
Rodriguez’s attention might’ve been divided between other sports during high school — a childhood spent watching baseball (and NASCAR) with his grandpa always had him interested in that path — but once he stepped between the white lines, Zito couldn’t keep him off the field.
There was the time when Ola played Eagle’s Landing and Rodriguez had a casual 43 carries for 394 yards and 6 touchdowns. Oh, and when Eagle’s Landing was down to its last play that game, Rodriguez asked Zito to play outside linebacker. He proceeded to tackle 3 ball-carriers on the same lateral-filled play to end the game.
(Go to the 1:21 mark of his Hudl video to see the play in full.)
Playing both ways was standard — one time he asked Zito to play him at safety after he missed the previous game with a concussion — and neither were games with 40-plus carries. He did that 3 time in his high school, including a 51-carry, 250-yard performance his junior season against Jones County.
“When I say that to people,” Zito said, “they’re like, ‘You gave the kid the ball 50 times?!’ But they didn’t know Chris.”
If they did, they’d know that like his childhood favorite players Marshawn Lynch and DeVonta Freeman — that’s why he’s been wearing No. 24 since his sophomore year of high school — Rodriguez’s biggest asset is wearing a defense down and always falling forward (Zito would have Sunday meetings and be stunned to learn that Rodriguez had 220 yards on Friday night).
If they knew Rodriguez, they’d also know that off the field, he’s a low-key guy with a close family circle and a love for country music (fellow Georgia natives Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan are his go-tos). They might not know that Rodriguez was always the bigger kid growing up, which was why he lined up at center when he first started playing organized football. He’s a full year younger than his classmates having skipped a grade back in elementary school.
Even though Rodriguez found his calling on the gridiron, he didn’t watch much college football as a kid. He liked Oregon for the uniforms, but that was about it. His junior year was when he aspired to play for a program like Ole Miss or in-state Georgia. That is, until House came back to Ola and talked to Rodriguez about Kentucky.
“(House) was like, ‘We gotta get you up here,'” Rodriguez said. “I was like, ‘Isn’t Kentucky a basketball school?’”
* * * *
Ask former Kentucky linebacker Kash Daniel about what it’s like to tackle Rodriguez and he’ll say, “it’s not fun and it’s not easy.” Daniel remembered the play in spring practice that drove that point home. Rodriguez was working with the second-string offense when he, as Daniel said, “ran through the front 7 like a locomotive going through a random car on the tracks.”
“It was like something you see in a pee-wee football game,” Daniel said. “I was just like, ‘Jesus, dude. This kid is gonna be unreal.’”
When Rodriguez was a true freshman in 2018, he joined a deep Kentucky backfield, headlined by the aforementioned Snell. It was Snell, along with fellow veterans Lonnie Johnson, Quinton Bohanna and Josh Ali, who helped sell Rodriguez on Kentucky (as more than just a basketball school) during his first visit to Lexington. Soon after his arrival, the similarities Rodriguez and Snell shared with their smash-mouth, between the tackles running style became obvious.
At first, Rodriguez rolled with the nickname “Mini Benny,” though at 225 pounds, there wasn’t really anything “mini” about him. And in terms of personalities, the bruising Kentucky backs had their share of differences.
“Benny would stay pissed off. Like, Benny was pissed off all the time. That’s just how he is when he had the ball in his hands,” Daniel said. “But Chris just always has this smile on his face getting up from the huddle. He’ll get pumped and everything like a football player does. But other than that, he’s all smiles, calm, cool and collected.
“Then he just runs through your face.”
As much as Rodriguez respects and appreciates Snell, who left Kentucky as the program’s all-time leading rusher, he’s past the “Mini Benny” phase of his career.
“I do not like the ‘Mini Benny’ nickname. It was cool, but I just want to leave my own legacy. (Snell) left his own legacy. That’s obviously why people call me Mini Benny because they still think about him,” Rodriguez said. “But I feel like it’s my time. I’ve gotta leave my legacy. I feel like it’s time people start knowing who I am and about my name. And I like C-Rod.”
C-Rod is well on his way to doing that. Despite the fact that his workload at Kentucky was nothing like what it was at Ola — his only college game with 20 carries was a 108-yard performance against home-state Georgia — it’s the efficiency that stands out. In 2020, PFF had 468 of his 785 rushing yards coming after first contact. Rodriguez averaged a ridiculous 3.93 yards per attempt after first contact, and he broke 31 tackles on his 119 carries.
“It’s like he becomes a different person when someone strikes him,” Zito said. “Something inside of him makes him fight harder after he gets hit.”
— Wildcat Hub 🏈 (@WildcatHub) August 18, 2020
In a way, Rodriguez’s low recruiting ranking was like him taking on that first hit that got him moving. He was ranked as the No. 114 player out of Georgia in the 2018 class. More specifically, he was ranked No. 8 among running backs from the state of Georgia. Compared to the 7 Peach State backs who were ranked ahead of him, Rodriguez’s college production speaks for itself (numbered in order of where they were ranked as recruits among Georgia running backs).
- Dameon Pearce: 1,232 rushing yards, 10 TDs
- Lyn-J Dixon: 1,372 rushing yards, 13 TDs
- Anthony Grant: 0 rushing yards, 0 TDs
- Christian Turner: 266 rushing yards, 1 TD
- Nolan Edmonds: 0 rushing yards, 0 TDs
- Jalynn Sykes: 0 rushing yards, 0 TDs
- Hassan Hall: 1,027 rushing yards, 10 TDs
- Chris Rodriguez: 1,361 rushing yards, 17 TDs
Rodriguez had 595 more rushing yards than Dixon in 2020, and his career 7.1 yards per carry is also tops among that group. Go figure that Rodriguez actually has 6 more career rushing yards than Zamir White (and on 25 fewer carries), who signed with Georgia as the nation’s No. 1 running back in the 2018 class.
Rodriguez would be the last person to highlight that or his status as PFF’s highest-graded returning back. He’d rather praise Kentucky’s offensive line, AKA The Big Blue Wall. “If I could trade places with them, I’d do it,” Rodriguez said. Stoops will instead opt to keep Rodriguez at the position where he thrived since his arrival in Lexington. Besides getting that first career start, Rodriguez has his sights set on bigger and better things in 2021.
Leading the SEC in yards per carry (again) is a top priority, as is getting that first 1,000-yard season. He’d like a touchdown in every game, too.
What about the ever-popular conversation regarding his workload? Rodriguez said he’s not worried about getting carries in Liam Coen’s new offense, which isn’t expected to rely as heavily on the ground game as Eddie Gran’s system did. But without Snell, Lynn Bowden Jr. or AJ Rose to share carries with for first time in his career, Rodriguez shouldn’t lack touches in 2021.
A few days after hearing the news that Kentucky hired Jemal Singleton as the running backs coach to round out the offensive staff, Rodriguez tweeted, “Can’t wait for next season and the opportunity to work with @LiamCoen and @CoachSings. Let’s work BBN. #notdoneyet.” That was his somewhat understated announcement that he was indeed returning for another year.
In some ways, Rodriguez is just getting started. He didn’t have the luxury of becoming the bell-cow back from the jump like his mentor Snell. In his ideal world, Rodriguez will pick up 2021 right where he left off. He ended 2020 with the best 4-game stretch of his career. It included his first 20-carry game, his first 3-touchdown game and his first 70-yard touchdown run. Rodriguez had 2 such 70-yard runs, both of which were 4th quarter daggers to seal Kentucky wins.
Just like Eagle’s Landing learned on his 3-tackle dagger, defenses would be wise to remember that Rodriguez’s tank is never empty. Unfortunately for the SEC, he’s got a full head of steam entering 2021.
One best not be a random car on the tracks when the locomotive rolls through.