Options Abound for Joker in Backfield

University of Kentucky running backs coach Ron Caragher arrived in Lexington with a cast of carachters that would compare with many Division 1-AA football programs in all honesty.

Out of the group that compiled his first running back unit in the spring of 2003, only Arliss Beach would play an integral part in any of Caragher's first three seasons at Kentucky since taking over in Lexington from UCLA.

Alexis Bwenge would be moved to fullback in June, Draak Davis would be moved to special teams and star as a 'gunner' by the time of his graduation in 2005, Monquantae Gibson would transfer out of the program, Dominic Lewis would be moved to tight end before moving to defensive end, Ronald Johnson would transfer back home to Ohio and Joe Razzano decided to end his football career prematurely a few months after spring practice.

Times have certainly changed for the young, energetic running backs coach, but that only adds more fuel to his passion for the job.

"It certainly is nice to have the cast of characters I get to work with now," Caragher said in an interview Friday following practice. "It's more different than anything else. We got very lucky in being able to bring in guys like Tony Dixon and Rafael Little in the same class, but I'm excited at what we have behind them as well with Alfonso (Smith) and Antoine (Brown)."

Today Caragher's running back unit is one of the strongest in the Southeastern Conference, returning the nation's fifth all-purpose back in Little, and Dixon, a redshirt sophomore that beat out Little, just two years ago before injuring his leg.

"It's nice to have two guys like Tony and Raffie that give you different options, but to also have two guys like Tony and Raffie, who generally encourage each other and want to see both of them succeed," Caragher described.

"They feed off of each other and push each other to be the best they both can be. I don't look at it as a competition and I don't think they do either, because I know they both want each other to succeed."

Outside of the 5-foot-10 Little and 5-foot-8 Dixon are two up-and-coming playmakers that Brooks and company feel are deserving of seeing the field as well in Brown and Smith.

Smith, a former 100-meter state dash champion at Louisville's Waggener High School, has made several impressive runs this spring. He hits the hole quickly, and with sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, has proven very difficult to catch once he accelerates.

"Alfonso is learning the system well and he brings big-play capability because of his outstanding speed," running-backs coach Ron Caragher said. "I'm anxious to see how he develops his receiving skills, how he carries the ball between the tackles, and using his power to finish runs, getting that extra one-to-two yards while he's being tackled.

"He's going to be in a position that we can put him in a game and not lose anything, as long as he continues to progress."

The 6-1, 200-pound Smith appears to have a frame that would carry more weight easily. He was a prime recruiting target for the Wildcat coaching staff a year ago, as he averaged 7.6 yards per carry during his career at Waggener and was the District Player of the Year as a senior.

"We've got to find a way to get Alfonso on the field, definitely," Caragher explained. "He's gonna be involved in everything we do on special teams and he'll see some time in the backfield as well. He's definitely got that great break away speed that we are looking for and we're as excited about his potential as anyone on the football team. He'll be a factor this season returning kicks."

The fullback position, which saw significant shuffling the past three years between graduated seniors Justin Sprowles and Alexis Bwenge was originally redshirt freshmen John Connor's job to take, but has seen Terrell Bankhead come into the mix and possibly steal some time as well.

"We really like what we see in Terrell Bankhead at the position," Caragher said. "He brings another dimension coming out of the backfield. A guy that can catch the ball and has pretty good speed. He's done some really good things for us."

Connor returning from injury this spring has been one of the most consistent players on the offensive side of the ball early on. Caragher expects big things from the Ohio native.

"John's not your typical freshmen, because he got to see some game action last year on special teams," Caragher explained. "We really like the way he's come along both at fullback and on the special teams unit. He's a guy that works very hard and he's completely healthy now.

"With him or Terrell in the game, it gives us more options, offensively, and a ability to feature the fullback more in what we want to do in different spots."


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