LEXINGTON, Ky. --- For a team that wasn't supposed to be able to run the football, Kentucky quietly did an ample job of it last season.
While no one would mistake the Big Blue for the Big Red ground terror that is Nebraska, the Wildcats complemented their potent passing attack by averaging more than 110 yards rushing per game and produced a promising young back in Chad Scott.
So with a new head coach who is placing a greater emphasis on the running game, and a new assistant coach who has motivated the UK ground corps to new levels, is there any reason to believe the Cats won't make even more improvements in 2001?
"We will be better," said running backs coach Wesley McGriff. "I don't think coach (Guy) Morriss would be too happy if we didn't, and I know these players would be disappointed. There's too much talent, too many hard-working guys. The sky's the limit with these guys."
Scott figures to be the centerpiece of the rushing game again this season. As a true freshman out of Plant City, Fla., he rushed for 611 yards on only 130 carries (4.7 ypc) and also caught 34 passes for 261 yards to earn Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News and a spot on the Freshman All-SEC team in voting by the league's coaches.
A year later, Scott has added 12 pounds of muscle to his 5-foot-10 frame to reach a chiseled 182 pounds. That's expected to help him hold up to the pounding a runner takes over the course of an intense season in the Southeastern Conference.
Last season, the staff limited Scott's carries each game for fear of losing one of their more talented players. He was plagued by a severe hamstring injury during in senior year in high school that scared off many other programs, and he missed the LSU game last year with a sprained ankle. His season high was 21 carries against Mississippi State, and he responded with 119 yards.
"I feel good," Scott said. "I feel a lot stronger, more confident when I'm running inside."
"Chad is a small guy, but he helped himself a lot by getting stronger in the weightroom," McGriff said. "Those extra pounds are going to make a difference, especially between the tackles. He's not afraid to take it up in there. He's a lot better than you would think."
Pure speed, however, is still the name of Scott's game.
"He can fly. Make no mistake about it," McGriff said. "If he gets daylight, he's gone."
When the Cats want a change of pace, they can call on the contrasting style of 5-11, 225-pound junior Artose Pinner.
"Inside the 20, that's where they really want me," said the former Hopkinsville standout. "It's a lot of banging, and that's the way I like to run. Me and Chad, we hit them with two different styles."
"That's two awfully good running backs I've got to work with," McGriff said. "And it's good that they're different kinds of runners. It's no secret that Artose is the guy you want in power situations. He's a real strong power back who can punish the defense. Chad is more the burner who can make things happen outside or catching the ball, but a lot of people don't realize just how fast Artose is. I tell you something, I don't think there's too many guys who can catch Artose Pinner from behind. He doesn't have the moves that Chad has, but he's very fast in a straight line. He gets his shoulders going north-south, and he knows where the end zone is."
The lone knock on Pinner in the past has been ball security. His two fumbles at Florida last year left a dark cloud hanging over an otherwise stellar performance (17 carries, 125 yards) against the third-ranked Gators. What should have been one of the brightest moments of his career turned into a bad memory as Pinner was relegated to the former staff's crowded "doghouse" and carried the ball only three times the rest of the season.
That nearly led to his transfer during the offseason until Morriss was named head coach in February.
"It was a big confidence blow," he said. "After that game, I pretty much disappeared, and I never knew why. I feel like this is a second chance for me, and I know coach Morriss believes in me. I don't want to let him down."
"The quickest thing that will get you benched as a running back is to lay the ball on the ground," McGriff said. "We work on emphasizing that every day. So far in camp, all our running backs have taken care of the football. I don't think there's going to be any problem at all."
A third piece in the backfield equation is junior Martez Johnson. The 5-10, 188-pound Detroit native showed glimpses of his potential last season, getting the starting nod against LSU when Scott was injured and responding with 53 yards on 11 carries. He also carried the momentum into the spring, when he was one of the Cats' top performers.
"Martez Johnson may have the quickest feet of the bunch," McGriff said. "He's got great ability.
"I guarantee you, by the time we get through this season, you will have seen a lot from all three of these running backs."
There's also a possibility of seeing true freshman Alexis Bwenge in the Cats' backfield. The 6-1, 205-pound Canadian import wowed his coaches and teamates when the freshmen reported. He began his career with the wide receivers --- and may still end up there --- but is currently working out with the running backs.
"That kid has great tools," McGriff said. "His feet are unbelievable. The first day he came over (from receiver) and went through our drills, he didn't miss a beat. He was as good as anybody we had.
"He's got good size, good vertical speed, great hands, and the kid is very smart. I think the kid's going to be a great addition to our backfield. I told him he's a natural."
Most of UK's sets last season were single-back formations. This year, the Cats plan to use the fullback more often.
After sitting out a year, Gus Jacobs has returned to make his mark on the team's early workouts. The 6-0, 234-pound Louisville native is one of the strongest players on the team, boasting a bench press of nearly 500 pounds. A former linebacker and special teams player, he also owns the mentality McGriff is looking for at the position.
"He's a warrior," McGriff said. "I'd go to war with him any day. He's as strong as they come and he loves to block. I guarantee you won't find too many guys who are satisfied to go through an entrie game and just block, but he is. That's his forte --- to make things happen for the tailback --- and he knows it."
After Jacobs, the Cats lack depth at the position. In the event of an injury, true freshman Ronald "Rock" Johnson (6-0, 246) would probably get forced into action.
"He came in a little bit out of shape, and I may have pushed him a little bit too much at the start, but let me tell you, when the veterans came in and started doing the drills, that kid picked it up," McGriff said.
"He just keeps improving. We've got to get him in the weightroom, keep getting him stronger and losing some of that weight, but he's got a lot of potential. It's good that he can be the understudy to Gus right now. We can bring him along slowly."