LEXINGTON — Ever since they first arrived on campus together, Chris Rodriguez and Kavosiey Smoke have been exchanging notes.
Kentucky football running backs “cut it down” and talk business regularly, Smoke said this week, and as the Wildcats’ season opener approaches, he thinks they’ll have plenty to talk about.
The conversations will not change, even if the circumstances have.
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When the Cats take the field against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday at 7 pm, it will be Smoke who will start at running back. Rodriguez and his 2,739 career rushing yards will be sidelined, apparently unavailable due to suspension, though UK coach Mark Stoops has remained vague about the nature of Rodriguez’s absence.
But even though Rodriguez can’t play, he still has his weight.
He’s been a presence all week, Smoke said, as he awaits word on when he can return to the field.
“He’s very supportive,” Smoke said. “Chris has been to all the meetings, he has been to all the practices. He even gets representatives in the scout (team). He is very supportive. He is staying at the facility. So he’s not closed-minded, he’s not just closed to himself.”
Rodriguez pleaded guilty this summer to a DUI charge, but it’s unclear if that’s why he’ll start the season out of the game.
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At his game-week news conference Monday, Stoops said he expects “some” of his players to have “multi-game suspensions,” but when asked a follow-up question about suspensions, he told a reporter : “I didn’t say suspended; you did it. They are not available to play.”
Stoops would not confirm whether an issue beyond the DUI arrest made Rodriguez unavailable. And he didn’t provide a timeline for the running back’s return, saying the decisions involve college staff as well as himself — “I have bosses and they have bosses and stuff,” he said — and that he will address player availability again next week.
Linebacker Jordan Wright is the only other player Stoops confirmed is not available for Saturday’s game. Stoops said he expects one of his unavailable players to return next week, but didn’t say which one.
The expectation has been that Rodriguez will miss several games. Still, the senior, who rushed for 1,378 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, was among seven Wildcats named this week as team captains.
Rodriguez received that honor despite his absence, transfer runner Ramon Jefferson said, because “wherever he goes in the building you feel his presence.” Jefferson, who enters Saturday second on the depth chart behind Smoke, said Rodriguez is “someone everyone on the team looks up to and respects.”
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“Sometimes after a play I’ll go over to Chris and lean on him, like, ‘What do you think you would have done on that play?’” Jefferson said. “Everyone feeds off the energy of others. So he is helping us prepare.”
Although his teammates have praised his attendance in the absence of the depth chart, Kentucky believes it will miss Rodriguez on Saturday. Miami’s defense allowed 4 rushing yards last season, a solid number that matched Kentucky’s.
But the Wildcats have options to fill in while Rodriguez is gone.
Smoke and Jefferson proved themselves to the coaches over the course of camp, but “we’ve got a lot of good players” at running back, Stoops said. More than two will see the field, and with talented backups including JuTahn McClain and La’Vell Wright waiting in the wings, the depth chart could change from week to week, even without Rodriguez’s return.
Jefferson, a former FCS All-American at Sam Houston State, is a newcomer who shined in Kentucky’s last fight, scored a touchdown and helped solidify the coaches’ feelings about him over the course of the preseason.
Smoke is a veteran with 34 games to his name. Saturday will be his second start. He has rushed for 1,306 yards in his career, 30th all-time in the UK. But the feeling is that he has made a significant move in this camp.
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Starting “isn’t a big deal for me, really,” Smoke said, adding that he finds coming off the bench “more exciting,” that it “gives you more juice.”
But Rich Scangarello, the UK’s first-year offensive coordinator, sees the start as significant.
“What I love is that he really had to fight for it,” Scangarello said.
And while Rodriguez’s circumstances played a role, Stoops said Smoke has done the right thing with the opportunity. He has taken the training without taking it personally. He has understood the expectations that the coaches have of him and has accepted the pressure.
“I’m proud of the way he responded in the last couple of weeks because he didn’t start there,” Stoops said. “He didn’t start at number one. Whether Chris was there or not, he has worked his way up.”