Before they were Kentucky Wildcats teammates, the first meeting between Yusuf Corker and Chris Rodriguez Jr. was a collision in a Henry County high school football game.
When Corker’s Woodland team faced off with Rodriguez and Ola, they were acquainted quickly.
“We went into the game and my coach told us, ‘Do not throw it to No. 1. Throw it the other way,’” Rodriguez said. “The first play of the game we called a pass play and my quarterback threw it to Yusuf (for an interception). I tackled him at the 1-yard line. To this day, he said he made a touchdown.”
The two have relocated to Lexington, Ky., as teammates, but they still bring up that high school showdown.
“I picked the ball off, and they’re in the shotgun, so Chris is already in the backfield five or six yards,” Corker said. “I picked it off on the boundary seven yards back. He dove and tripped me up. If I show you the film, I really scored.”
The Henry County natives now have a bond as college teammates and key players for Kentucky, which opens its season Saturday at noon against Auburn on the SEC Network. While the stadium capacity in Auburn will be limited, the Wildcats are eager to play in a real game, one that could turn heads early in the season if they can pull out a win.
Kentucky is coming off an 8-5 season and a Belk Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.
“I’m pretty confident we can play with Auburn,” said Corker, who had a breakout 2019 season.
The 6-foot, 197-pound defensive back took a redshirt season in 2017 and played in 13 games with eight tackles in 2018, then took a huge step forward last year with a team-high 74 tackles, highlighted by 11 tackles against Georgia. He was voted last week to the preseason coaches’ All-SEC team.
“(Corker’s) a great teammate and a great player,” Rodriguez said. “You can really tell with Yusuf he really cares about the team. He wants to win. He’ll do anything he can to win the game. And he’s really smart on the field.”
Despite an odd offseason because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Corker feels confident in the defense’s improvements from last season.
“I feel like we have a lot more experience, especially in the secondary,” he said. “I feel like we tackle better than last year. We know what we’re doing better. We’re more comfortable as a defense. We know each other a lot better.”
When he finishes football each day, Corker stays grounded at home with his 10-month-old daughter, Amira.
“When I’m done with practice, I go home and entertain her, along with homework and trying to keep the house clean,” he said.
Corker feels good about the offense, too, in large part because of what Rodriguez brings at running back.
“Chris is going to get those hard yards,” Corker said. “I played against Chris three years in high school and in high school every time the game plan was to stop 24, that was his number. Stop Rodriguez and it’s over. I call him the second coming of (former Kentucky and current Steelers running back) Benny Snell.”
Like Corker, Rodriguez had a breakout 2019 season. The 5-11, 224-pounder took a redshirt season in 2018, playing in the maximum three games allowed, and stepped into a more prominent role last year with 71 carries for 533 yards and six touchdowns. His 7.5 yards per carry ranks second in school history behind (current Miami Dolphin) Lynn Bowden’s 7.9.
He went over the 100-yard mark twice, including 125 yards on nine carries with a 64-yard TD run against rival Louisville. He also rushed 15 times for 129 yards and two scores against Vanderbilt.
“When they get us in third-and-short yardage, I feel like I can be that guy, like when we get in that position as a team, we know who we want to put in,” Rodriguez said. “They’re counting on me to get the short yardage.”
Kentucky’s first challenge comes Saturday at Auburn, the first stage in a challenging, SEC-only schedule assembled because of the coronavirus. The Wildcats played their usual SEC East opponents along with SEC West crossover games with Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty good season playing 10 SEC games,” Rodriguez said. “We get to play against some of the teams I used to dream about playing against. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait to get out there and play.”