Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez plans to ‘empty the tank’ against Georgia

ATHENS – Chris Rodriguez and his father had an interesting conversation this past weekend. Chris Rodriguez Sr. wondered if he had to continue to root for Kentucky after his son, the Wildcats’ featured running back, has graduated from college.

“I was, like, ‘dang, right!’” the younger Chris Rodriguez said with a chuckle.

That’s just a glimpse into what is an interesting family dynamic within the Rodriguez household this week. The No. 11-ranked Wildcats – led by Rodriguez – come to Georgia to take on the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs at Sanford Stadium on Saturday (3:30 p.m., CBS). Most of the Rodriguez family, rooted in the McDonough and Riverdale areas, always have cheered for Georgia, as most folks in the state do.

Now, theirs wasn’t a fervent fandom. They were not your proverbial college football fanatics or season-ticket holders or even Saturday game-goers. They were casual observers, just rooting on the state university because it had a good team and because everybody else around them was.

But then C-Rod Jr., as he is known in those parts, emerged at Ola High School as a college football prospect. And not a marginal one, either. He was drawing scholarship offers from almost all of the SEC schools, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Kentucky being chief among them.

But one team was conspicuously absent from the adoring throng. Georgia dropped by, sent a few letters and made a couple of calls. But otherwise the Bulldogs never offered anything.

“I mean, I talked to the running back coach (Dell McGee) from time-to-time, but it wasn’t really nothing too major,” Rodriguez told reporters in Lexington this week. “It’s nothing really against (Georgia) because they didn’t recruit me a lot. It’s not like I don’t like them at all. It’s just I’m from there, a lot of my family likes their team and that doesn’t sit right with me. And my family knows that, too.”

Georgia coach Kirby Smart corroborates Rodriguez’s account.

“I remember him coming out,” Smart said Tuesday. “We evaluated him, looked at him. To be honest, I don’t remember which class he was in, as in who we signed that year. But we evaluated him, talked about him. He’s a really good back.”

Rodriguez certainly is. At the moment, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound junior is the best running back in the SEC. At least that’s what the statistics say.

Rodriguez will arrive at Sanford Stadium on Saturday leading the SEC in rushing with 768 yards, or 128 per game. He also leads the league’s primary ball carriers in yards per carry at 6.4 yards an attempt. He’s the Wildcats’ leading scorer, with five touchdowns.

“He really fits what they do in terms of being a downhill, physical, punishing runner,” Smart said.

“Rodriguez is a really strong back,” Georgia safety Lewis Cine said. “He runs really hard, refuses to go down. So, it’s definitely a challenge.”

Rodriguez is not Kentucky’s lone backfield threat either. The Wildcats also feature running back Kovosiey Smoke, who has 263 yards rushing and is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Coupled with zone-read quarterback Will Levis, a transfer from Penn State, the trio has combined to give Kentucky one of the best rushing teams in the SEC (214.2 yards a game, 12 touchdowns).

“Last year, me and Smoke talked about it at the end of the season,” Rodriguez said. “We were like, ‘Yo, we want to be the best duo that there is.’ And we have been.”

Well, about that Rodriguez might get some argument from Georgia’s four backs, if not a few more combinations in the SEC. But the point is well-taken.

Rodriguez is very much the consummate SEC back, and one who probably would be figuring into the Bulldogs’ rotation had they thought enough of him to offer a scholarship.

As it is, Georgia is well set in the backfield, too. In fact, the Bulldogs’ top two running backs are the reason that UGA didn’t bother to take a long, hard look at Rodriguez in the 2018 recruiting class. The year that Kentucky signed Rodriguez, Georgia signed Zamir White of Laurinburg, N.C., and James Cook of Miami. White not only was rated the nation’s No. 1 running back, but also the top overall recruiting prospect in America. Cook was a 4-star recruit and considered the No. 3 all-purpose back in the country.

That’s not to mention that the Bulldogs had D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien on the roster at the time.

“Georgia had a stable of running backs, as usual,” said Southeast Bulloch High School coach Jared Zito, then Ola’s coach. “And Chris was a really good back, don’t get me wrong. But I just don’t think he had the flash at the time that they were looking for.”

It’s not like Rodriguez was an also-ran. Playing in a no-nonsense football region of the state, Rodriguez rushed for 1,669 yards and 25 touchdowns while playing both offense and defense. He averaged 7.2 yards a carry and once carried the ball 51 times for 391 yards as a senior.

“He was really, really good,” said Zito, who exchanges texts with Rodriguez before and after every game. “The truth is, Kentucky wasn’t looking at Chris either when they first came through here. They were actually recruiting (offensive lineman) Austin Smith, who’s now at Georgia Tech. … I asked (Kentucky’s recruiter) if they were taking any backs this year. He said, ‘Yeah, one. We need a bigger back.’ I said, ‘Geez, you guys might want to look at Chris.’ They didn’t jump off the table for him, but they started following him.”

The rest is history, as they say. Rodriguez not only earned a starting job with the Wildcats as a sophomore, he became one of only two players to gain more than 100 rushing yards against the Bulldogs last year (Alabama’s Najee Harris was the other). Rodriguez had 108 on 20 carries in Georgia’s 14-3 win in Lexington last October.

This season, there has not been a team that has rushed for more than 100 yards against Georgia. The Bulldogs lead the nation in rush defense at 66.5 yards per game. No. 18 Auburn managed 46 yards last week.

Rodriguez has let it be known that he’d love to be the one to break that trend when the Wildcats visit Saturday. In the many interviews he has had on the subject this week, he has stopped short of saying it’s personal for him. But he does not mind saying that he is supremely motivated whenever he plays Georgia.

“For me, it’s really big,” Rodriguez said on SEC Network. “I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder going against Georgia. It’s just a different feeling, a different mode for me. I feel like in this game I have to play my hardest, I have to give everything I have and just empty the tank against them.”

Of course, Rodriguez’s family will be there in Sanford Stadium, too. Chris Sr., mom Stephanie Thornton and sisters Chyna Thornton and Gabbi Rodriguez will be sitting among the Kentucky family members, and they will be dressed in Kentucky blue.

“My family doesn’t have a choice,” Rodriguez said with a laugh.

As we know now, that goes not only for Saturday, but for all-time.