There may be no better illustration of what Kentucky football hopes star running back Chris Rodriguez can bring to the team when he returns from a four-game suspension Saturday than what happened when he last touched the ball in a Wildcats uniform.
Facing first-and-goal from the 6-yard line with 1:54 remaining in the Citrus Bowl and Kentucky trailing by four points, quarterback Will Levis made the wrong read on a play where he handed the ball to Rodriguez instead of keeping it himself.
Rodriguez was almost immediately met by an Iowa defender in the backfield, but he ran through the tackle before blasting over another defender at the goal line to score the game-winning touchdown.
“It’s very rare that he doesn’t break the first one or make the first one miss,” Levis said Tuesday. “When you’re in situations like that where you think the play may be broken, it can be a positive, maybe even game-winning play with a guy like that. It’s just a matter of getting the ball in his hands whenever we can.”
The offense Rodriguez returns to is different than the one Kentucky used in the Citrus Bowl.
New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has shied away from designed quarterback runs in an effort to protect Levis from unnecessary hits. Meanwhile Levis is backing up the hype as a projected first-round NFL Draft pick by averaging just under 300 passing yards per game, up 75 yards per game from a year ago, with three big-play threats at wide receiver and a gaggle of productive tight ends.
Kentucky’s rushing attack has struggled during Rodriguez’s four-game absence, ranking 123rd of 131 teams in the country in rushing yards per game (81.5). Some of those struggles can be attributed to the other running backs lacking Rodriguez’s ability to run through tackles and turn broken plays into big gains, but blocking issues along a rebuilt offensive line have been prevalent and might not be fixed by Rodriguez’s return alone.
“For Chris, he just needs to be himself,” UK Coach Mark Stoops said. “He doesn’t need to come in and be our savior or anything like that or save our run game — any of that. We don’t need him to worry about that, we just need him to be him. And, we need the people around him, the other guys around him that are playing, to do their job and to strain and to do things better in certain moments.”
Levis and Rodriguez’s other teammates expressed confidence the Wildcats running back will avoid putting too much pressure on himself to fix the run game or make up for missed time, but by missing the September games he will not have the luxury of easing into action against lesser opponents.
Rodriguez’s debut comes in a ranked game at No. 14 Ole Miss. Some rust should be expected, but how Rodriguez plays in Oxford could say much about Kentucky’s hopes for improved offensive balance moving forward.
HOW CHRIS RODRIGUEZ HANDLED HIS SUSPENSION
Citing student privacy laws, Kentucky has declined to provide specifics about why Rodriguez was held out of the first four games. Stoops has even hesitated to use the word suspension to describe Rodriguez’s situation.
Earlier this month, the Herald-Leader reported UK launched an investigation in February into members of the Wildcats football team filing inaccurate timecards for jobs worked at the university hospital, according to documents obtained through the state’s open records law.
That investigation determined multiple members of the team listed hours worked that they were not present at the hospital for when video surveillance showed them leaving the facility or there was a conflict with class or game schedules. Players, whose names were redacted from a letter sent to the NCAA and provided to the Herald-Leader, were declared ineligible.
Stoops did tell reporters before the season opener that Rodriguez and outside linebacker Jordan Wright were among the players being held out due to an off-field issue. UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart confirmed to the Herald-Leader there had been an investigation into Rodriguez’s eligibility.
Rodriguez also pleaded guilty to a DUI charge in July.
“We’ll honor his student rights and those pieces,” Barnhart said of Rodriguez. “Looking forward to having him out there. Chris Rodriguez has given an awful lot to this program and has played awfully hard and is an amazing football player. I want to see his career at the University of Kentucky end the right way. For him to be able to run the football, and for that to be the memory of our fans for him.”
Despite the suspension, Kentucky named Rodriguez one of its team captains before the opener. He has spent time on the scout team working against UK’s first-team defense during the season’s first month but has also received second-team reps working on the offensive game plan the last couple of weeks.
“He’s been bringing it the last handful of weeks he’s been out there,” Levis said. “He’s been out here working with us, so he’s the same old C-Rod. I think he’s definitely taken his preparation up to a new level knowing that he’s playing this week and there’s a game plan he has to focus on seriously now.”
Rodriguez has not been available to reporters for interviews since spring practice, so he has yet to share his version of the events that led to his suspension.
In hostile road environments like the sellout crowd Kentucky will face at Ole Miss, Rodriguez will likely face taunts from fans about the suspension, but teammates and coaches do not seem worried about the situation affecting his composure.
“He’s in great shape,” Scangarello said. “He’s handled things very, very well in a very difficult situation, so I’m very happy with how he’s carried himself and mentally getting himself where he needs to go so when the time came he was ready to go.”
CAN RODRIGUEZ STILL BREAK BENNY SNELL’S RECORD?
Rodriguez is the SEC’s top returning rusher after totaling 1,379 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. He enters the season sixth on UK’s career rushing yards list (2,740). Rodriguez needs 1,134 yards to break Benny Snell’s career rushing record.
If Rodriguez had played a full regular season and bowl game, he would have needed to average just 88 yards per game to break Snell’s record, almost 20 fewer rushing yards per game than he averaged a year ago. Now, he needs to average 126 rushing yards per game across the final eight regular season games and bowl game to break the record.
Rodriguez has tallied at least 126 rushing yards seven times in 38 career games. He reached that total three times last season in his first year as a starter. There is hope for a fast start since one of his best games as a Wildcat came with 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 2020 loss to Ole Miss.
Of course, if Kentucky could win the SEC East, Rodriguez could add an extra game to work toward the record. Reaching the SEC championship game would almost certainly put Kentucky in discussion for the College Football Playoff, which would include an additional game if the Wildcats reached the national championship.
Snell’s record looks safe for now, but Kentucky would be happy if Rodriguez regularly topped the 100-yard rushing plateau, something no UK running back has done thus far in 2022.
Kentucky’s rushing numbers are not the only way he could positively impact the offense. A productive Rodriguez should open up even more options for Levis and a passing attack built around play-action plays.
“He’s such a good guy and such a good player, just makes us so much a better offense just having his whole persona, the way he carries himself,” Scangarello said. “He’s a veteran in this league, he’s very tough-minded and he’s super talented.”
No. 7 Kentucky at No. 14 Mississippi
When: Noon Saturday
Records: UK 4-0 (1-0 SEC), Mississippi 4-0 (0-0)
UK career rushing leaders
1. Benny Snell (2016-18), 3,873 yards
2. Sonny Collins (1972-75), 3,835 yards
3. Moe Williams (1993-95), 3,333 yards
4. Rafael Little (2004-07), 2,996 yards
5. Mark Higgs (1984-87), 2,892 yards
6. Chris Rodriguez (2018-22), 2,740 yards
7. George Adams (1981-84), 2,648 yards
8. Derrick Locke (2007-10), 2,618 yards
9. Boom Williams (2014-16), 2,511 yards
10. Artose Pinner (1999-02), 2,105 yards