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Senior tailback Raymond Sanders knew he was well suited for the spread offense being brought to UK by new offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
Seven spring practices into the Mark Stoops Era, the new UK coaches have realized Sanders’ skills as well.
“I knew it was an offense that would definitely get me in space and let me challenge some guys in space and set up some blocks in space,” Sanders said. “Looking for a lot of home runs this year.”
Sanders, who has started seven games in his career, has shown glimpses of success in three seasons at UK but has been slowed by injuries.
In 29 games, Sanders has totaled 1,078 yards and eight touchdowns on 233 carries. He’s added 238 yards and one touchdown on 39 career receptions.
“Raymond Sanders has looked the best so far,” Brown said of the UK running backs. “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.”
While coaches acknowledge Sanders has separated himself from the other UK running backs, he will not carry the load by himself.
Senior Jonathan George ranked second on the team with 528 rushing yards on 108 carries in 2012. Sophomore DyShawn Mobley totaled 187 yards on 41 carries in limited action as a freshman but drew frequent praise from the previous coaching staff.
Redshirt sophomore Josh Clemons has returned to the field this spring after missing the 2012 season with a knee injury. He gained 293 yards on 65 carries in six games as a freshman before suffering the injury.
Redshirt freshman Justin Taylor did not play in 2012 but was considered a recruiting coup after signing with UK despite at one time being committed to Alabama.
“Those guys look good,” Stoops said of the running backs. “I can’t even tell sometimes because I’m too buys watching everybody, but turn around and they’re busting tackles and running hard and everything. I’ve been pleased with that position.”
Brown’s offense calls on the running backs to play a vital role in the passing game, but it also includes more running than some pass-happy spread schemes.
The running backs are also asked to make the pass protection calls before the snap.
“We really try to make it easy on the running backs, except with pass protection,” Brown said. “We put a little bit more in pass protection on them. Where most people put it on the quarterback, we put it on the running back. They’re learning.”
Running backs coach Chad Scott notes the pass protection aspect of the offense is still very much a work in progress for his position group.
“It’s something they’re totally different to, and they’ve got a tendency to go out there sometimes and get the play and not say anything,” he said. “The line is waiting for them to make the call.”
Scott and Brown agree that, like in other areas, Sanders is ahead of the pack in understanding those protection schemes.
Sanders knew most of the protection calls in the previous offense and even helped the young quarterbacks make them at times.
“It’s simpler than the last offense, so making the calls is a lot simpler,” he said. “It’s not as difficult. You’ve just got to know what you’re doing and study.”
At 5-foot-8, 199 pounds, Sanders fits the prototypical mold of a tailback in the spread offense, but coaches are not afraid of using their bigger backs.
Scott said even the UK players had to work to shed those preconceptions about what running backs thrive in a spread offense.
“Whereas in the past guys like DyShawn Mobley and Taylor were looking forward to just getting the ball and running straight power and isolation all the time, we’re going to still ask them to do that but we’re also going to ask them to run the inside zone play and have great lateral agility and quickness, see in frontside and backside lanes,” he said.
Sanders is focused on not only improving his own performance, but also helping his fellow backs grasp the system. He knows he cannot do it alone.
That being said, there appears to be no doubt that Sanders would start at tailback if UK’s season began today.
“I think he has it all,” Scott said. “I think he’s the total package.”
Donte Rumph scheduled for Friday surgery
Senior defensive tackle Donte Rumph is scheduled to undergo shoulder surgery Friday afternoon, Stoops announced. Rumph suffered the injury during Monday’s practice. Stoops expects him to make a full recovery in time for fall practice.