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Will he stay or will he go?

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Will Saturday’s Citrus Bowl be the last game running back Chris Rodriguez plays for Kentucky?

He ranked second in the Southeastern Conference with 1,272 yards rushing this season and tied a school record with eight 100-yard rushing games.  He was 12th nationally with 106 rushing yards per game. That followed a 2020 season where he had 785 yards and 11 touchdowns on 119 carries.

Rodriguez has had his name mentioned as a potential pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Some thought he might leave UK after the 2020 season but he returned to Kentucky because he promised his mother he would be the first member of his family to graduate from college.

The 5-11, 225-pound Rodriguez is a power runner who shows patience hitting inside but also h speed to break big runs even though it may not be elite speed.  He said last week he really has not thought about next season.

“I am here for the team and to do what is best for the team,” Rodriguez said. “My teammates want me to play in the bowl game, so I am going to play. It’s not like I am thinking about leaving. I have to graduate first. As of this day, I have not thought about anything else.”

Interpret that how you want. I think you can make a case to believe he will be back and also a case that he simply has not decided what he might do and that’s why he said “as of this day” he had not thought about the NFL.

Quarterback Will Levis has said on social media he will be back next season. Receiver Wan’Dale Robinson has not dropped hints about what he might do after having one of the best seasons in the SEC this year but many believe he will enter the draft.

Once again Kentucky has not had any players opt out of the bowl  game to prepare for the NFL draft. Linebacker Josh Allen and running back Benny Snell set the tone for that culture by playing in the 2018 Citrus Bowl. All-American offensive lineman Darian Kinnard will be a high draft pick but he’s playing this year.

“Shout out to Benny. That’s my guy. Ever since I got here he took me under his wing the one year we did have together,” Rodriguez said. “He showed me the ropes.”

Snell left as UK’s all-time leading rusher after the Citrus Bowl and now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rodriguez left Georgia to play at Kentucky to make his own name. He had played offensive line until he was in seventh grade before converting to fullback. Rodriguez picked UK over Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

“As far as making a name for myself, that was kind of my whole purpose of leaving Georgia,” Rodriguez said.  “I did not have an offer from UGA (Georgia) but I wanted to get away and get my name out there.

“I just want to thank everybody who gave me a chance. My team is behind me and got me to this point.”

Does Rodriguez think Georgia and other schools who did not offer him a scholarship now regret their decision?

“I don’t know. I landed here and I am in the perfect place for me,” the UK running back said.

Perfect enough that Rodriguez was happy to participate in an autograph signing organized by Levis to benefit tornado victims that raised about $20,000.

“Doing that, seeing all of the people that came out to support, you know that Kentucky is one. It’s not like you’re in Louisville or you’re in Western Kentucky; if you’re in Kentucky, everybody cares about everything,” Rodriguez said.

“It was a good experience. It was fun. We were signing for a long time, but we made a lot of money.”

However, Rodriguez says bowl talk, tornado relief or nothing else has distracted him or his teammates from what lies ahead Saturday against Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. He said starters were staying active in bowl practices and not content to take a few reps and then just watch.

“If you ask me, I think we are ready (for the bowl game),” Rodriguez said before the Cats took a Christmas break last week. “We could play a game tomorrow if we needed to.”

Larry Vaught
Larry Vaught is a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award and has covered University of Kentucky sports since 1975. Larry now has a syndicated UK sports column appearing in 34 newspapers across the state as well as http://www.yoursportsedge.com/, and http://www.cameronmillsradio.com/. Larry also joins Mark Buerger and Anthony White on WLAP Sunday Morning Sports each week in Lexington as well as appearing each Tuesday with Tom Leach on The Leach Report.

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