Kentucky backfield adjusting to new pass-first philosophy
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky will ask a lot of its running backs this season.
Carrying the ball might be the least of their responsibilities.
New Wildcats offensive coordinator Neal Brown is implementing his pass-oriented "Air Raid" scheme that means the tailbacks' first priorities are catching passes and blocking.
Seniors Jonathan George and Raymond Sanders say that shifting their mindset from punishing defenses rushing the ball to improving their receiving and blocking skills has been an adjustment.
Still, they're mindful that the ground game will be important to help the Wildcats establish the pass.
"The running back is a really important part of this offense," said George, who was second to Sanders in rushing last season with 504 yards and four touchdowns. "We really have to be more versatile as far as catching the ball because there are opportunities to make more plays out of the backfield and running the ball.
Running backs coach Chad Scott "has taught us all a lot of great techniques to improve our games and put us in position to win those one-on-one battles in the trenches. And blocking has gone really well for me so far."
In some ways the duties are similar to what the backs had to do in Kentucky's former spread formation, where they had to pick up blitzing linebackers or defensive backs and get free to give the quarterbacks an option to beat the pressure.
George has shown he can do all three, adding 21 receptions for 223 yards and a touchdown last season along with contributing on special teams.
Sanders, who rushed for 669 yards and five TDs as a junior, said he has had to expand his repertoire. An able receiver (18 catches, 111 yards in 2012), he's adapting to getting more touches in the passing game but has focused on blocking better and making protection calls.
"I've had to just work on my game with cuts and pass blocking, just getting better at the little things that can help instinctively," said the 5-foot-8, 187-pounder, who has added 15 pounds since coming to Kentucky.
Though Sanders and George have the inside line to the starting job, Kentucky is grooming candidates to bolster the rotation.
Sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who rushed 41 times for 184 yards last season, has impressed coaches with his hard-charging running style.
since returning to practice last week after surgery this summer to repair two hernias.
First-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops described freshman JoJo Kemp as a "pit bull" for his mentality. And junior fullback D.J. Warren is a bona fide blocker who's working to help the Wildcats in other areas.
"I feel good about the backfield," Stoops said.
Though the backs aim to raise last year's per-game rushing average of 138.8 yards, the objective is boosting a Kentucky passing game that averaged just 176.2 yards. Brown comes in with a reputation of success after building Texas Tech's air game into a top-10 outfit the past three years, including No. 2 last season at nearly 356 yards per game.
By comparison, the Red Raiders' 86th-ranked ground game (139.9) was one spot above Kentucky, but the running game was still a significant part of the offense -- Kenny Williams' 824 yards led three Red Raiders with at least 450.
As Kentucky works toward achieving the same proficiency, Brown offers hopes to his backs by stressing they must establish running game in order for the Wildcats to open things up through the air.
"For us to put all our eggs in the receivers' basket, that wouldn't be real wise for myself or coach Stoops," Brown said. "We're going to have to run the ball and lean on the offensive linemen that have some experience, and then those backs that have been through those wars."