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Sanders, UK running backs not afraid to carry the load

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Former Wildcat Chad Scott returned to Lexington this offseason to serve as running backs coach on Mark Stoops' UK staff. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Former Wildcat Chad Scott returned to Lexington this offseason to serve as running backs coach on Mark Stoops' UK staff. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a day or two each of practice this spring, offensive coordinator Neal Brown takes to Twitter. After reviewing film, Brown tells his 13,000-plus followers which of his players performed well.

His reasons for the exercise in transparency are twofold. First, he wants to keep fans up to date since Kentucky's first five practices have been closed to the public. Second, it's for the players. He wants those who are performing well to receive recognition and those who are not to strive for it.

Thus far, he's named between four and eight players each day and will almost certainly do the same at some point on Tuesday. When he does, you can rest assured that at least a one of two of UK's running backs will be on the list.

Whereas other positions on the offensive side of the ball lack experience and depth, the UK backfield is flush with both. Because of that, the backs are shouldering more than their fair share of the load as Brown looks to revitalize the Wildcat attack.

Led by their new coach, the UK running backs don't mind.

"I like it," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "Give us pressure. We like it. We'll respond, I promise you."

That doesn't mean Scott's unit isn't a work in progress though.

Just as it has for every other positional group, the installation of Brown's offense has presented challenges. The responsibilities and priorities in UK's quick-strike attack are radically different than anything the running backs have ever dealt with before, which has caused plenty of fits and starts, even for the veterans.

"Really the experience, it's gonna come in handy in the latter part of spring ball and going into the season, but now the offense is totally different," Scott said. "Even these guys that are experienced, it's an adjustment period for them."

Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George combined for nearly 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last season. With all the football they've played at the Southeastern Conference level and their pass-catching ability, the two seniors were expected to stand out early. That's proven to be the case a third of the way through spring practice, particularly for Sanders.

"Raymond Sanders has looked the best so far," Brown said. "He's changed his body. Really pleased with how he's handled himself. He's matured, and he's done well not only rushing the football, but in the passing game. He's well ahead of the rest of them in blitz protection."

In spite of his 5-foot-8 frame and the fact that he is listed as at least 13 pounds lighter than any of his fellow backs, Sanders has emerged as the most consistent blocker of the bunch, a key role in Brown's pass-happy scheme. In fact, that might be the biggest area of adjustment. UK's backs are responsible for making protection calls at the line of scrimmage, which requires smarts and, just as importantly, a willingness to speak up.

"We make the protection calls, which is something totally different," Scott said. "Now we're asking them to be communicating more and communicate loudly and it's something that's totally different them."

Different as it may be, Sanders is doing his best.

"I make mistakes just like everyone else, but I try to limit my mistakes and make sure I have everyone else going as far as running backs," Sanders said. "I just try to pick guys up and execute and make sure I'm doing the right things on the field."

Outside of blocking ability, Scott says the most important attributes of a running back in this system are "lateral agility and quickness" - words the former UK running back used more than once in speaking to the media on Monday. Sanders certainly fits the bill.

"I think he has it all," Scott said. "I think he's really the total package. I think he's done a great job taking care of his body to put himself in position to be as good as we need him to be."

"I definitely feel like this offense is a great fit for me," Sanders said. "Catching out of the backfield, speed sweeps, there's a lot of different things that coaches are integrating that can get me in space and get me in alleys where I can hit the seam or make some moves on guys."

As good as Sanders has looked early, his emergence shouldn't discourage any of the other running backs. George, sophomores Josh Clemons (who has returned to practice after redshirting last season with a meniscus injury) and Dyshawn Mobley and redshirt freshman Justin Taylor are all getting roughly an equal share of practice reps.

Brown's offense may have a reputation for throwing the ball, but anyone who minimizes the supposed impact a running back can have hasn't watched closely enough.

"You might think, 'Hey, how do they fit within our offense?' " Scott said. "It's a spread offense, but it's a downhill run game. We still, in all our run game, we try to find a way to get our shoulders squared and run downhill."

Take last season at Texas Tech for example. Three Red Raiders rushed for at least 450 yards, led by Kenny Williams, who received All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors after racking up 824 yards.

Williams' strong 2012 also serves to dispel another notion about UK's new offense: that big backs have no place in it. Williams is listed at 5-foot-9, 219 pounds, which suggests that heftier Wildcat backs George, Clemons, Mobley and Taylor can excel, provided they can move.

"That's something that even the bigger guys, when we first came in, the bigger guys kind of struggled with, kind of muttering under their breath, 'Man, we're not going to fit. They're looking for a smaller guy,' " Scott said. "We're not. We're looking for guys that have got great lateral agility and quickness."

Scott believes all of his backs have that kind of ability, even though it might not come as naturally as it does for a player like Sanders. He says the key for them will be spending time away from practice honing their craft. And in turn, that will be the key to the unit as a whole fulfilling expectations.

"We like the pressure," Scott said. "It is pressure, but it's a good problem to have. It's a good kind of pressure. Just respond to it. Prepare yourself well and respond to the opportunity when it comes."

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