Fear not Woody Hayes, the power running game is not going away. Whether it's done traditionally, through a spread option attack or with the Wildcat, the ability to gain a consistent three yards when it's needed is a hallmark of a successful team. The teams that can turn those three yards into five or seven are the ones that really do damage.
Kentucky has plenty of offensive question marks this season, but with a stout offensive line, a stable of running backs and a commitment to rushing the football, that power running game could be a hallmark of this edition of the Kentucky Wildcats. Four of UK's five starters on the offensive line have missed time in fall camp due to injury, but that running game could be what sets the table for everything the offense does once back to full strength.
"It's frustrating for all of us offensively when you have three or four offensive lineman out," running backs coach Steve Pardue said, "but the other guys are working hard and you hope it will help us down the line. When we get everybody healthy I think we will be able to run the football. When you do that it opens everything else up."
Pardue is in his first season as running backs coach at UK after a long and successful career coaching LaGrange (Ga.) High School. He has instilled a philosophy that demands tough, hard-nosed running backs willing to seek out contact. For the offensive line, that kind of runner is exactly the one that they most enjoy blocking for.
In UK's first scrimmage of the fall last Saturday, the first team offense was able to pound out consistent yardage on the ground. Even though three starters from UK's five-man group sat out with minor injuries, the right side of the line remained intact with guard Larry Warford and tackle Billy Joe Murphy. The pair was able to assert its will, but Murphy said that should not come as a surprise.
"I know they expect that of me and Larry," Murphy said. "Whenever the ball is run to your side, they're calling your number so you have to step up and make a play."
Running behind them was Raymond Sanders. The sophomore stands at just 5-foot-8, but his short frame belies the punch that he packs.
"He's got a low center of gravity," Pardue said. "He's not a small kid, he's short. He's a really thick, strong kid. He runs behind his pads well. Sometimes it may be an advantage to be a little bit smaller, he may get lost in there some."
When Pardue arrived in December, Sanders embraced his philosophy and he believes himself to be the kind of back that can thrive in it.
"He just wants us to be tough guys and to explode through and get those extra two yards after contact," Sanders said. "Those are the things he wants us to do and I feel like I can do that (with my) low center of gravity. It's hard for guys to tackle me and wrap around me. I can also bring power. I have strong legs and I feel confident I can deliver the blow."
Although he has been the most consistent fall performer, Sanders isn't the only back well-suited to line up behind UK's bruising offensive line. Junior CoShik Williams, sophomore Jonathan George, redshirt freshman Brandon Gainer and true freshmen Josh Clemons and Marcus Caffey have all shown potential at various points.
"Young guys are pushing, old guys are stepping up and we're having a really good competition," Pardue said. "They're all in the mix getting reps. (We don't have) a true pecking order. It kind of changes day to day with the one consistent being Raymond."
Among the two true freshmen, Pardue said Clemons looked best, but partially due to a hamstring injury to Caffey that has forced him to miss four practices.
"They're both showing they have some talent and we're excited to see them Saturday in (UK's next) scrimmage," Pardue said. "Hopefully they know more than the Saturday before."
Murphy and the offensive line aren't concerning themselves too much with the battle for playing time in the backfield. They are simply intent on making the job easy for whoever is carrying the ball.
"I have faith in all those guys that I've seen," Murphy said. "I don't care who's back there and the offensive line doesn't care who's back there, we just try to make a hole for them."
The player who potentially stands to benefit most from a potent running game is quarterback Morgan Newton. The junior is playing his third season in offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' system, but he has made just eight starts in his career. Additionally, he is breaking in a receiving corps without a single wide out who has a 100-yard game in his career.
If Newton were stepping into a situation where he was called upon to throw 40 or 50 times a game, there may be some serious cause for concern. Instead, he will play in an offense unafraid to run the football, which should significantly open things up for him in the passing game.
"It makes his life easy," Pardue said. "It makes everything better if you're balanced. That's the key, to be balanced, to run and throw it. It's hard for the defensive coordinator to dial in plays."
An ability to run the ball not only opens up holes in the secondary for the quarterback to attack, but it also makes the job of the pass blockers that much easier.
"When everybody is worried about the run, they're not as worried about a pass rush," Murphy said. "They won't get as wide on third down because they're worried about the run game."
Sanders, while excited about what the running game could do to open up the pass, believes there will be games when UK is able to physically exert its will in the running game behind that offensive line whether they are throwing the ball successfully or not.
"I really think so," Sanders said when asked if they can dominate games on the ground. "Those guys are experienced and they're great players. I feel like they're the top offensive linemen in the nation. That's my confidence in those guys. I've seen how hard they work."