No. 20 Kentucky has questions; No. 12 Florida carries momentum
No. 20 Kentucky is expected to be without veteran tailback Chris Rodriguez on Saturday night when the Wildcats (1-0) take on No. 12 Florida (1-0) in a Southeastern Conference opener in Gainesville, Fla.
Wildcats coach Mark Stoops offered no update during the week and ESPN reported on Friday that the program is preparing for a minimum three-game suspension.
Rodriguez pleaded guilty at a pretrial hearing in July to operating a motor vehicle under the influence, but it is unclear if his absence remains tied directly to that issue.
“Again, I’ve been advised, there are things going on, there are layers to this,” Stoops said earlier this week. “I cannot comment on it. I’m not trying to hide things from you. If I could say it, I would … I think you can understand it’s out of my hands.”
Rodriguez has rushed for 2,740 yards in his career, including 99 in last year’s 20-13 win over the Gators in Lexington, but he did not play in the opening 37-13 win over Miami (Ohio) last week when the Wildcats rushed for only 50 yards as a team.
Kavosiey Smoke, who rushed for 32 yards against the Bobcats, will start against the Gators, who rallied to beat No. 7 Utah last week, 29-26. With transfer Ramon Jefferson and JuTahn McClain out with injuries, redshirt freshman La’Vell Wright could see increasing action.
“We’re excited to get La’Vell going again,” Stoops said of the redshirt freshman, who was impressive in fall camp before getting “dinged up” — Stoops’ words. “He’s another big, strong guy who can hit it up in there for some tough yards.”
Will Levis passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns for Kentucky last week.
Stoops did say that linebacker Jordan Wright, who was held out of the opener for an undisclosed reason, has been cleared to return and will be available on Saturday. The senior team captain has 106 career tackles, including 15.5 tackles for loss, to go along with 12 pass breakups, 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and a pair of defensive touchdowns.
“It’s good to get Jordan back,” Stoops said Thursday. “He brings experience, brings another pass rusher and another body to chase around a very good quarterback. We need all hands on deck, really glad that he’s back and cleared to play.”
Florida rolls in with momentum after the Gators showed the kind of grit new coach Billy Napier was hoping to see to defeat Utah, the Pac-12 defending champion. Utah led four times in the game, and each time the Gators responded, with quarterback Anthony Richardson leading the way.
Richardson passed for only 168 yards but rushed for a team-leading 106 yards and three scores for the Gators, including the go-ahead touchdown with 1:25 left to complete a 14-play, 75-yard drive.
“Anthony Richardson is one heckuva football player,” Stoops said. “Very good player. Very talented.”
Napier praised Richardson’s decision-making and game-management, saying, “He rose to the occasion.”
The Gators also unveiled another threat in running back Montrell Johnson, a transfer who followed Napier from Louisiana, where he ran for 838 yards to earn 2021 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors. Johnson rushed for 75 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries against Utah.
The Gators rushed for 283 yards but gave up 230 to the Utes, so Napier sees plenty of areas for his team to improve, including handling their success.
“I think the big question,” he said, “is how is this group of players and this staff going to handle everybody patting them on the back for the next week?
“I think we have a little bit of the best of both worlds here. We got some momentum, but we also have a team that is very self-aware. I think we’ve got a smart group. They understand good football. They watched the tape. They know they can do better.”
–Field Level Media