Kentucky’s running backs have expanded pass-catching roles

              Kentucky junior running back Asim "A.J." Rose, center, carries the football during NCAA college football practice in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. The Wildcats' ground game will be a group effort as it moves on from the departure of career rushing leader Benny Snell, with backs also factoring in the passing game. (AP Photo/Gary B. Graves)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s running backs aren’t concerned with picking up where Benny Snell left off — for now.

If they handle expanded roles in the Wildcats’ offense, filling the huge void left by the school’s career rushing leader will eventually take care of itself.

Running backs will be expected to catch the ball more than in recent years as Kentucky shifts from a run-based attack to the pass behind junior quarterback Terry Wilson and a deep receiver corps. The running game will be a group effort featuring Asim “A.J.” Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez as the Wildcats try to build on the momentum following their most successful era behind Snell.

“We’re going to run the rock, you know that,” said Rose, a junior who rushed for 442 yards and five touchdowns last season. “It’s just a feel thing. When the game comes, whoever we’re playing, if they’re stacking the box while stopping the run and we start throwing it out a little more, they have no choice but to spread it out.

“I’m not really worried about throwing it 40 times a game. We’re going to get our carries.”

They could provide varied looks different from the hard-charging Snell, who last season rushed for 1,449 of his 3,893 career yards out of direct snaps. The veteran is Rose, a 6-foot-1, 218-pounder who had 71 carries as a sophomore and finished third in rushing yards behind Snell and the mobile Wilson (547 yards, 4 TDs).

Smoke and Rodriguez are redshirt freshmen who had encouraged moments in limited action. Smoke rushed four times for 45 yards in the final two games, highlighted by a 37-yard TD run at rival Louisville, and showed more explosiveness last spring. Rodriguez gained 43 yards on two carries in an early-season win over Murray State, including a 27-yard run.

None of this trio feels pressured to duplicate Snell’s style or dominance. Their goal during fall camp has been preparing for wherever they’re needed, heeding advice Snell stressed often as Kentucky averaged 199.4 yards per game to tie for 40th nationally.

“No one can ever be like Benny,” Rodriguez said, “but I feel like everybody has their own style. If we do what we do best, we’re going to be good.”

One responsibility will be providing protection and options for Wilson along with run support. Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said before camp that the backs have worked on picking up blitz packages and has been pleased with their pass-catching abilities in camp.

“They all have really good hands,” he said this week. “I’m excited about that room. They’ll bring something a little bit different to the table, but I like the toughness and I like the camaraderie.”

Whether Kentucky becomes more pass-happy after averaging just 161.5 yards on 23 attempts per game last season remains to be seen. Though Wilson is capable of making big plays with his arm and feet, he likes his runners’ potential catching passes out of the backfield.

“They’ve been open this whole camp,” the quarterback said after last weekend’s scrimmage. “We’ve been getting a good six yards, so you can rely on the backs.”

Gran’s quest for balance means the backfield still must do its part grinding out yards to keep defenses honest. For sure, Rose, Smoke and Rodriguez are eager to carry the load and maintain the recent success established by Snell and Boom Williams.

But they’re good with being part of the air game, especially if it helps establish the run.

“I feel pretty good about us throwing the ball more than last year because it just opens up more holes for us,” Smoke said. “When we go to the running game, we’ll take it to the house.”