While sitting on the bench with a knee recovering from arthroscopic surgery, Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders noticed an unremarkable enthusiasm level among Kentucky's offense and particularly the running backs, the position he returns to for Saturday's game against No. 18 South Carolina (4-1).
Sanders said the Wildcats (2-3) started taking themselves too seriously in the midst of a stretch of games against powerhouses Florida and LSU. They forgot what it was like to play loose, a trait Sanders said is embedded among teams like the Gators and Tigers that have sustained success in the SEC.
“I feel like guys were taking it too seriously and worrying about making mistakes,” Sanders said. “Just go out there and play. Give your all but have fun. That's what football is all about. Have a passion about it but have fun. Enjoy it.
“Let's get some chest bumps. Let's dap each other up. Let's get a hand shake going between our guys. I didn't see that when I was watching from off the field.”
The Cats' offense hasn't had much reason to dap each other up in Sanders' absence because it has been largely unable to move the ball effectively in the three games without him. Of course, the two games with Sanders weren't much better (he had 21 rushes for 97 yards and no touchdowns, splitting time with Josh Clemons), and Sanders admitted that.
But Kentucky's season is a few losses away from officially becoming a lost cause in hopes of qualifying for a sixth-straight bowl game, and Sanders said positive reinforcement is more important than ever.
He didn't notice it was a problem until he stood back, unable to play, and observed the offense with an outsider's eye.
Now he's healthy. The swelling is gone from the Sept. 15 surgery to repair partially torn cartilage in his right knee. Getting back to game strength wasn't just about the swelling; he had to regain strength in his quadriceps muscle since it couldn't be exercised much with an injured knee.
The whole leg is feeling good, and Sanders said his lateral and forward movements are all 100 percent.
“I definitely hope I can be the spark we need,” he said. “That's why I come out here and work hard. I don't want to do it alone. I want to bring everyone with me.”
Sanders' enthusiasm has popped back up around the program since his return to practice this week. Head coach Joker Phillips said Thursday he had not decided if Sanders or true freshman Josh Clemons would start against the Gamecocks.
Either way, the second-year coach said Sanders' return to practice has perked up the entire offense. The dap is back.
“I'm really impressed with him,” Phillips said. “He's gotten himself healthy in less than two weeks. I think Raymond has brought a lot more fire to practice. He's one of the reasons why we practiced so well.”