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Countdown to kickoff: Wildcat positional preview - Tailbacks

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Leading up to Kentucky's season-opener against Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., on Sept. 1, Cat Scratches presents an exclusive series of positional previews to prepare you for the football season. Every day before kickoff, Metz Camfield and Guy Ramsey will bring you Joker Phillips' philosophy for each positional group, a spotlight feature on a selected member of the group and rundown of other projected contributors. Today we take a look at one of the younger and more inexperienced units on the team: the tailbacks.

Joker Phillips' philosophy

"Out of the running back position, first of all you have to be a durable guy to be able to play in this league. You have to be a strong, tough guy that's physical and athletic. In our offense, you have to be able to run inside, you have to be able to run outside and you also have to be able to catch the football. We line our backs up at a number of different spots on the field so the guy has to be a smart guy and understand where he needs to line up."

Spotlight: Sanders ready to take over leadership role with tailbacks

Tailback Raymond Sanders is UK's leading returning rusher with 258 yards and three touchdowns. (UK Athletics) Tailback Raymond Sanders is UK's leading returning rusher with 254 yards and three touchdowns. (UK Athletics)
Raymond Sanders enters the 2011 season as a sophomore with career totals of 68 carries and 254 yards. Believe it or not, Sanders also enters the year as the tailback on the University of Kentucky football team with the most carries and most yards.

When talking to Sanders or running backs coach Steve Pardue, you'd never know just how inexperienced he and the other tailbacks really are. Standing at 5-foot-8 with an infectious smile and outgoing personality, Sanders oozes confidence, but not cockiness.

"Being a sophomore, I'm still young, I still have a lot to learn, I never can stop learning," Sanders said. "I'm still going to continue to grow and continue to be anxious to know more and better myself."

Competing in a conference featuring the likes of South Carolina sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, the reigning national freshman of the year, and Alabama junior running back Trent Richardson, one of the preseason Heisman favorites, Sanders hasn't gotten much hype entering his sophomore season.

As a freshman, Sanders wasn't "the guy". That title belonged to Derrick Locke, the speedy senior tailback who had been through the ups and downs during his Kentucky career. Sanders showed promise, though, as a true freshman, competing with fellow freshman Donald Russell for touches. With Locke gone after having used up his four years of eligibility and Russell transferring, it's now up to Sanders to step forward to the front of the stage.

"I've been proud of him, he's done a good job both on and off the field and in the meeting rooms," Pardue said. "He did a good job with the young guys this summer when we couldn't be with them. He had them already kind of a leg up, so he made my job a little easier. And he has a real good understanding of the offense."

Being a leader isn't something new to Sanders, it's a job he says he held back in his high school days. Despite his sophomore standing, it's now a role he is trying to take over again.

"I help (the freshmen) understand things, not just on the field but off the field, how's schoolwork, how to do this, when to manage your time, differently things like that," Sanders said. "They see me as a big brother, someone who they can talk to, not just on the field but in life also."

It's a somewhat awkward position for Sanders to be in. Serving as the big brother is an honorable role, yes, but he's also competing with his "little brothers" so they don't supersede him as the starting tailback. One such player is freshman Josh Clemons, whom the coaches have raved about in practice.

Sanders and Clemons know each other from their "little league football" days growing up near Atlanta. Sanders played for the Tucker Lions while Clemons played for the Fayetteville Blue Devils. Sanders said his team beat Clemons', but that Clemons was always a good player and they have a good bond now. Don't ask him who can bench more though.

"Have you seen his arms?!" Sanders said before breaking out laughing. "Man he has some oversized triceps, he's huge, he's a big cat. We're just going to bring it out here on the field though. We're going to come out here and work and I'm going to stay on him and he knows I'm going to stay on him. I'm not going to let him take a play off."
 
It's that attitude and overall improvement from spring practice that has Pardue and the Kentucky coaching staff excited for Sanders' play in the upcoming season.

"I think right now he's doing a better job of making quick decisions," Pardue said. "He's making one cut now, where in the spring he wanted to make a couple of cuts and in this league you can't do that, they're going to be on you. He's gotten a lot better there and I think he's gotten a little stronger and faster so that's helped him a lot."

With zero expectations from the media entering the year (several publications list the Kentucky running backs unit at the bottom in the conference), Sanders and Co., have no choice but to try and prove everyone wrong. Don't expect him to be insulted by the low expectations though, that's not in Sanders' personality. Bring up the fact that they're at the bottom of the rankings and Sanders does what he always seems to do; he smiles.

"We're guys who are young but we're going to keep working," Sanders said. "We might not have a star right now, but I feel like we have a couple stars, that as the season progresses are going to come out and catch people's eyes. I feel like I could be one of those guys and the guys beside me - and I say beside me because we're a group. We're going to make some noise in the SEC and be productive."

Other contributors

Freshman Marcus Caffey - Serving as one half of the dynamic freshman running back duo from Georgia, Caffey has been hampered by a bad hamstring. Due to the injury, Caffey has missed some practice touches and is playing a little catch up. Look for Caffey to come on strong toward the middle-to-end of the season.

Freshman Josh Clemons - I'll admit, the first time I saw Clemons I thought he was either a safety or a linebacker. It wasn't until I looked closer that I realized I was seeing the guy coaches and coordinators have been raving over throughout summer camp. The beast from Fayetteville, Ga., rushed for more than 2,000 yards as a senior and had 25 touchdowns. Look for Clemons to make his mark on the Kentucky rushing attack - and I wouldn't be surprised if it didn't take too long, either.

Freshman Brandon Gainer
- Gainer enters the season after having redshirted as a freshman in 2010. Coming out of high school, Gainer was the No. 15 running back, according to ESPN.com, totaling more than 4,700 rushing yards, along with 37 touchdowns in his high school career. Gainer will be looking to crack into that group of top three backs for Kentucky and earn some carries. Playing in the rugged SEC, don't be surprised if he doesn't.

Sophomore Jonathan George - George played sparingly in 2010 as a redshirt freshman, totaling nine carries for 25 yards. George is thought to be battling with Gainer for the No. 4 spot on the running back depth chart right now behind Sanders, CoShik Williams and Clemons, in no particular order. Similar to Gainer, don't be surprised to see George get some touches, especially with so little experience throughout the unit.

Freshman D.J. Warren - Warren comes to Kentucky from Alcoa, Tenn., the home of UK football legend Randall Cobb. Warren played defensive end and running back in high school ball, but has been moved to fullback for the Wildcats. Pardue has said Warren has had a really good camp at fullback for a freshman, and it sounds as though there's a good shot we'll see Warren on the field sooner rather than later.

Junior CoShik Williams
- Williams enters the year with the second most carries on the team (38) and should push Sanders each day in practice. After rushing for 95 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries against Charleston Southern, Williams has shown the ability to seize the moment and make his touches count. UK head coach Joker Phillips loves Williams' practice habits and says he's just a solid player all around.

Links

UK's running backs: 'Solid group' ventures into void (Jen Smith, Lexington Herald-Leader)

Power running game an important weapon in UK's offensive arsenal (Guy Ramsey, Cat Scratches)

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