Heart of Cats’ O: Running backs

By Ethan Levine

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Injuries forced the UK football team to use a running back by committee method a year ago, with four backs handling at least 40 carries during the year. The entire committee is back and ready to go for the 2012 season. The only question is: Who will step up and be the guy when the season starts Sunday?

Senior CoShik Williams asserted himself as the team’s starting running back at the end of last season and is back to try to win the job again.

After starting last season as UK’s third-string back, Williams worked his way into the lineup as others in front of him were hampered with injuries, making the most of his opportunity to get in the game. Williams started the final five games of last season, and his 486 yards on the ground led the team. He eclipsed 100 yards in two games at the end of last year and ran for the game-winning touchdown in the season-ending victory over Tennessee.

With exceptional quickness and agility, Williams has a knack for getting to the edge and making people miss in space. Should UK’s offense find space for Williams again, expect him to have another big season as a senior with a full year of playing time ahead of him.

Junior Raymond Sanders began 2011 as UK’s top back, but a slew of injuries kept him sidelined for most of the season. At just 5’8, Sanders has put on 15 pounds of muscle since arriving at UK in 2010 and is preparing himself both mentally and physically to work his way back to the top of the depth chart.

Sanders is small with a low center of gravity, which helps him break tackles and find slim creases to burst through for big gains. He is a strong pass catcher, an asset in UK’s screen-heavy offense of the past two seasons, and is probably the best blocker in pass protection of UK’s stable of backs. Having played in 18 games over his first two seasons at UK, Sanders brings back plenty of game experience to the Cats this season. If he can stay healthy and get back to the physical style of play that earned him playing time as a freshman, Sanders could be an impact player on UK’s offense.

“This offseason I just made sure that I got stronger, got my legs as strong as they were, even stronger actually, and just made sure I’m working hard, doing extra conditioning and a lot of film work,” Sanders said. “Just going out, doing the extra things other than what we did as a workout.”

Sophomore Josh Clemons might be the most pure running back of the bunch, but after tearing the meniscus in his knee midway through last year was forced to sit the remainder of the season.

Clemons brings it all to the table when he is on the field, utilizing above-average speed, quickness, agility and strength to run both outside and in between the tackles. In just six games in 2011 Clemons ran for 279 yards, good enough to lead the team at the time of his injury. He ran for a touchdown in each of UK’s first two games, including a program-record 87-yard touchdown dash in UK’s home-opener against Western Kentucky, the longest run by a UK running back since 1970.

Clemons likely won’t suit up Sunday after undergoing exploratory arthroscopy in the same knee due to swelling throughout fall camp. Don’t expect the injury to hold Clemons out for any long stretches this season, but with the running back position as deep as it is on UK’s roster the injury may still limit his playing time, especially in the first half of the season.

“We’re just going to follow the coaches’ gameplan, whatever it may be,” Clemons said. “If I’m going to be one of the running backs they want to use, then you will see me out there. What I do know is the coaches are just trying to find a way to win.”

Also in the mix for playing time this fall will be junior Jonathan George, who had 51 carries for 208 yards and two touchdowns last season for the Cats. George’s playing time has steadily increased throughout each of his first two seasons at UK, but in a crowded stable of running backs it might take more injuries for George to see significant playing time. The Lincoln, Al. native has played in 22 career games (mostly on special teams) and displays good quickness with a knack for breaking tackles. Even if George is unable to earn time in the backfield, expect him to still compete for opportunities in the kick return game with Williams and Sanders.

For now, it remains a mystery as to how head coach Joker Phillips plans to split up playing time at running back. He could choose one of the four and center the entire run game around them. He could use a committee again, favoring whatever back is hot at that time. Or, it could remain an open competition at the position into the early part of the season to see which back, or backs, he likes best heading into the meat of the schedule.

But guys like Sanders remain unphased by the collection of talent at the position and the potential that jobs can still be won or lost on every snap.

“I have got to stay humble, and everything is a blessing,” Sanders said. “So I can’t be selfish and not share my knowledge with these guys. I know that the other veterans, Shik (Williams) and Jon-Jon (Jonathan George) and Josh (Clemons), they all speak up because we just want to see each other do the best and win.”

No matter which way Phillips leans, he can find assurance in the fact that depth is a good problem to have. And with as much experienced talent and character as there is at the running back position, Phillips knows his running backs can be a position of strength in 2012.