Kentucky football: Passing fancy? No, Chris Rodriguez is fine in revamped UK offense
There was a school of thought that said maybe Kentucky shouldn’t be too hasty to revamp its ground and pound offense from the past few seasons under Eddie Gran. Sure, it was one-dimensional, and sure, an RPO-heavy attack was unlikely to light up scoreboards around the SEC. But on the other hand, there was Chris Rodriguez.
Overlooked out of high school, Rodriguez long ago established himself as the kind of grinding, slashing runner who plays well behind Kentucky’s grueling offensive line. The prototype goes back to Benny Snell, who churned through defenses keyed to stop him. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Rodriguez became UK’s fourth option as a runner, lining up alongside WR-turned-QB Lynn Bowden and splitting snaps with AJ Rose and Kavosiey Smoke. In 71 carries, Rodriguez rushes for 533 yards and 6 touchdowns. With Rose graduated and Terry Wilson under center, Rodriguez’s role expanded in 2020. He missed 2 games due to COVID quarantine but rushed 119 times for 785 yards and 11 more touchdowns.
And in 2021?
Well, who knew?
Eddie Gran left town and Liam Coen was hired to restore the passing game in Lexington. But how would this impact Rodriguez, a bruising runner who seems to thrive on wearing down defenses?
Despite having 6 100-yard rushing performances before the 2021 season, Rodriguez had always been splitting carries and time in the UK backfield. He had eclipsed 17 carries just once, rushing 20 times (for 108 yards) in a rainy loss at Georgia. He also had caught just a pair of passes for 14 receiving yards. Despite being one of the SEC’s best rushing threats, Rodriguez had never seen the ball as many times as most premier running backs. Consider Snell, for instance — who had 20 games with 20+ carries and even 3 games with more than 30 carries.
For his part, Coen said all the right things in the spring, saying in a press conference, “Chris Rodriguez needs to touch the ball as many times as possible.” In the same series of comments, Coen indicated that he’d like to try to get Rodriguez 25 touches a game. Ambitious? Definitely. But 2 games in, Coen has been true to his plan.
In UK’s opener, Rodriguez had 19 carries for 125 yards. He likely would have added more numbers had he not sat for much of the fourth quarter, as UK used not only Smoke but a pair of other running backs deeper down the depth chart. Rodriguez also caught a pair of passes. In Week 2, he had 27 carries for a career-high 206 yards and 3 touchdowns. He also caught his first touchdown pass out of the backfield to open UK’s scoring. Two weeks into the season, Rodriguez leads the SEC in carries, yards and rushing touchdowns. He is averaging 25 touches per game. It’s safe to say that Rodriguez and the new offense are merging like peanut butter and jelly.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez is proving to be as talented as a diplomat as he was as a running back. After Week 1, he praised his offensive line, saying that they were “great” before elaborating, “Me and them dudes, they see something we didn’t see during film. We came to the sideline, said, ‘Alright, let’s get it correct.’ Got it correct with coach, and the rest is history.”
The rest may indeed be history.
After Rodriguez’s rushing juggernaut against Missouri, a frustrated Eli Drinkwitz opened his own postgame comments by saying, “We got our butts whipped up front and weren’t able to stop the run.”
It sounded like he could have been talking about the old Kentucky offense. Three yards and a cloud of dust. But maybe Coen (and Rodriguez) have figured out how to marry the best parts of the old offense with this new-fangled passing business.
How much history it will write is very much an open question — and Chris Rodriguez figures to be a significant part of the answer.