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Ryan Clark: Chris Rodriguez has found his Old KY Home; Georgia native extra motivated this week

It takes a special mixture of players from many places to make a winning football team.

And UK’s 6-0, tied-for-first-place-in-the-SEC football squad is no different.

For example: UK’s quarterback is from Connecticut. Its leading receiver is from Frankfort, via Nebraska. Its head coach and lead recruiter are from Ohio and its unquestioned leader on defense is from Maryland.

Ryan Clark has been writing sports stories and books for 20 years. After graduating from Western Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky, he went on to write for The Clarion-Ledger, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Kentucky Sports Radio, WCPO.com, Saturday Down South and ESPN.com, among others. He’s covered Kentucky Wildcats basketball, Ohio State football and the Cincinnati Bengals for various outlets. He is the author or co-author of seven books, including the local bestseller 100 Things Wildcats Fans Must Know & Do Before They Die.

But for 13 players, some of whom are starters while others are fighting for playing time, next Saturday’s game against No. 1 Georgia is even more important than the media will suggest.

It’s because they all hail from the Peach State.

And for one UK player in particular — one of those Georgia natives — there’s even more motivation.

That would be Chris Rodriguez Jr., the Wildcats’ leading rusher, who hails from the small town of Ola, which is about 30 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Even though he would’ve liked to have gotten some interest from the hometown state Bulldogs, he was too busy playing other sports to really focus on the out-of-season recruiting camps that lead to that kind of attention. Still, he was able to attract offers from Ole Miss and Mississippi State.

But not UGA. Oh well — no harm, no foul. Rodriguez doesn’t seem to dwell on it. He found a perfect fit in Lexington. He’s previously said that Benny Snell (the school’s all-time leading rusher) showed him what could be done at UK, and he really enjoyed the school and the facilities. And even when Rodriguez committed to Kentucky, Georgia never gave him a second look. Not that it really would’ve mattered. He was sold on the Cats.

Still, attention is always nice. And Rodriguez does seem to save some extra rage stored up for Georgia.

“I know you remember last year,” Rodriguez said Saturday.

He was referencing last year’s hard-fought 14-3 loss to No. 5 Georgia in Lexington. Rodriguez rushed 20 times for 108 yards — it was, at the time, his second career 100-yard game.

One wonders if we could expect another outstanding performance when UK travels to Athens. Rodriguez came back to UK after a season when he could’ve tested the NFL Draft waters.

Chris Rodriguez (UK Athletics photo)

He totaled 785 yards and 11 touchdowns on 119 carries. But he came back to graduate — he will be the first in his family to do so — and to participate in games like Saturday.

“We know what we are playing for next week and we are ready,” he said. “Everybody wants to win. This is a player-led team. Rather than have coaches having to get us hyped or anything, I feel like we know what we have to do to win.”

Rodriguez, who Pro Football Focus rated the best returning running back in college football, has said he’s always loved former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, whose nickname, “Beast Mode,” was used to describe the back’s ferocious, bulldozing running style. In Rodriguez’s first seasons, he was known as “Mini Benny,” as in, mini Benny Snell.

Though at 5-11 and 224 pounds, he isn’t really a “mini” anything. In fact, he doesn’t want to go by Beast Mode or Mini Benny. He prefers the nickname C-Rod — and he plans to leave his own legacy at UK, just like Snell did.

And it could be cemented with a win over home state No. 1 Georgia on Saturday.

“We (as a team) still haven’t reached our potential,” Rodriguez said. “Run pissed off, that’s all I’m going to do.”

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