CoShik Williams runs in a drill during practice. (Photo by Jon Hale)
Few things in life are as predictable as the recent link between the team that runs for the most yards and the winner of the annual UK and Louisville football game.
For 16 consecutive seasons, the team that has come out on top in the rushing battle has also come out on top on the scoreboard. During that 16-year span the rushing margin between the two teams has ranged from 10 to 341 yards, but in every one the team that ran for more yards took home the Governor’s Cup.
It should come as no surprise then that much of the focus entering the 2012 season opener against Louisville has been placed on UK’s five-headed rushing attack made up of senior CoShik Williams, juniors Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George and freshmen DyShawn Mobley and Justin Taylor.
“I’ve very confident and comfortable about the running back position,” said UK head coach Joker Phillips. “Those two young guys give us the ability to have even more depth than we originally thought we’d have before the season.
“There are four guys that have played significant roles since they’ve been here at the tailback position. Adding those two guys gives us even more depth.”
DyShawn Mobley. (Photo by Jon Hale)
In the first official two-deep depth chart of the season, Phillips lists Williams and Sanders as co-starters at the position, though he said last week that Williams deserved to get the first carries of the game.
Regardless of who is on the field for the first series, each of the UK tailbacks appears likely to receive playing time Sunday. The unit is without sophomore Josh Clemons, who was the second-leading rusher on the team in 2011 despite playing in just six games, after he had his knee scoped last week.
Running backs coach Steve Pardue is eager to see his unit in game action.
“I think we’re healthy,” he said. “That’s a good thing. The guys have gotten through camp. Josh (Clemons) had the pre-existing injury, but the rest of the guys are healthy.”
UofL snapped a four-game UK winning streak in the series last season with a 24-17 win. In that game, the Cardinals rushed for 181 yards, compared to UK’s 35 net rushing yards.
During the previous four-game winning streak, UK had outgained Louisville by an average of 42.25 yards per game on the ground. When Louisville won the four games from 2003-2006, the Cardinals outgained the Wildcats by an average of 207.5 yards per game on the ground.
UK is 7-9 in the 16 games where the rushing outcome has mirrored the final score. In the seven wins, UK has rushed for at least 120 yards five times. The UK defense has held Louisville to less than 100 yards rushing three times in the 16-game span. The Wildcats won each of those games. (For the game-by-game rushing totals in the series click here)
UK’s top two tailbacks know the importance of their unit’s success Sunday.
“We’re up for the challenge,” Sanders said. “We’ve got a lot of good running backs that can come in and produce and give us good yardage. We just want to come in and produce and give us good yardage.”
“We’re going to try to come out prepared, trying to do everything we’re supposed to do — cover the ball, hit the holes at full speed,” Williams said. “We’re going to try to get those extra yards.”
Williams, who closed the season as the starter, was UK’s leading rusher in 2011 with 486 yards in nine games. His posted two 100-yard rushing games as a junior and totaled 68 yards and one touchdown in the season-ending upset win versus Tennessee.
When asked why he thinks UK’s offense will be better in 2012, sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith first pointed to the improvement of Williams.
“He’s much better than he was last year, obviously than the first game but even from (the end) last year,” Smith said. “CoShik (Williams) has shown a lot of things that he can be a really good back in this league.”
The taste of playing time he received as a junior gave Williams motivation for offseason workouts.
“For me playing a little bit last year, I got a chance to see how fast the game was,” he said. “Now I try to assimilate that into practice, go as hard as I can in practice and just stay focused even when I’m not in by trying to get those mental reps when I’m sitting there watching.”
The five tailbacks who are expected to play Sunday range in height from Sanders at 5-foot-8 to Mobley at 5-foot-11. In weight, they range from Williams at 178 pounds to Mobley at George at 223 pounds. Phillips says Williams is pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team.
The two freshmen backs have been described as bruisers who can “move the pile,” while Sanders and Williams can use their agility to get outside.
“It’s a lot of power, a lot of speed, a lot of quickness. We’ve got some guys that can move the pile,” Sanders said. “We’ve got some guys that can move the edge. The one thing we all bring together is we can all stick our heads in there and get those tough four yards.”
Pardue and the UK coaching staff have been stressing the importance of positive yards plays.
“That’s something our coach always tells us to do: get four yards,” Sanders said. “We’re better off in second and six, third and six rather than second and 12, second and 10. We just want to stay ahead of the chains, and just keep pushing forward.”
“There’s no time for dancing. There’s no time for trying to shake anybody,” Williams said. “It’s just straight forward, get up the field, get the yards we can, get four yards, get a tough four yards.”
Much of the UK running backs’ success on Sunday may hinge on the performance of a young offensive line. The Wildcats feature two new starters in redshirt freshman left guard Zach West and junior right tackle Kevin Mitchell on the line. None of the second-team offensive linemen have received significant playing time to date.
Sanders said he is confident that the line will open enough holes for them to succeed.
“It’s not a concern for us,” he said. “We really don’t try to listen to that or be concerned with that. We know what they can do and know what they are capable of.”
If the offensive line and UK running backs come through on Sunday, it should be be a major step in the Wildcats’ goal of pulling off an upset.
“The thing we have to do is run the ball efficiently on first and second downs,” Phillips said. “We don’t always want to be running the ball, but we have to be able to run the ball well enough to get ourselves into manageable third downs.”
While the correlation between running success and winning in the Governor’s Cup rivalry is striking, running the ball well is not a one-game goal for UK.
“We run attitude plays,” Phillips said. “It’s downhill, stop me if you can. People coming right at each other. I think that sets the tone.”
You might also be interested in Monday’s UK football notebook, which looks at Maxwell Smith’s eagerness to prove himself, true freshmen on the first depth chart, a surprising backup at wide receiver and more.