LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — CoShik Williams relishes the thought of being the center of attention, especially if takes his quarterback off opponents' defensive radar.
Williams hopes that's the plan as he prepares to be the lead tailback for a Wildcats team needing a strong ground game after a 5-7 season. Besides establishing ball control, it gives newly named sophomore Max Smith time to get comfortable in the pocket.
If last season offered any hints, Williams is up to the challenge. Thrust into action by injuries, he started the final five games and keyed Southeastern Conference wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee after breaking out against Jacksonville State with a career-high 148 yards on 22 carries.
Williams finished with 486 yards and three touchdowns in nine games, and a strong spring has solidified his bid to be the primary ball carrier for Kentucky, which opens the season on Sept. 2 at Louisville.
"I expect to help carry the team and keep the guys motivated," said Smith, 5-9 and 184 pounds. "A lot of young guys look up to me and listen to what I say, so I try to keep them motivated and keep Max motivated as well when he gets down. I'll try to motivate myself as well."
If starting was Williams' incentive last season, lifting Kentucky's rushing standing might provide this year's boost. The Wildcats ranked 11th of 12 SEC teams at 124.2 yards per game (90th in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision) and were third-worst per carry at 3.5 yards.
Williams is confident those numbers will improve.
"We've grinded real hard this whole summer, so I feel we connected way more than we did the year before," he said. "We're ready to lock horns and get this train going."
Facing another tall task in the nation's toughest conference, Williams could be one of a half dozen players expected to contribute.
Junior Raymond Sanders returns after knee injuries sidelined him last season, and he has pushed Williams during practice. Sophomore Josh Clemons is recovering from knee injuries as well but could play a key role if healthy.
Senior Jonathan George (233 yards, two TDs in 2011) and freshmen Dyshawn Mobley and Justin Taylor might also get time.
But Williams clearly is the offensive front-runner, raising hopes even more during last weekend's scrimmage highlighted by a 14-play, 98-yard scoring drive. Wildcats coach Joker Phillips pointed out that they ran just two passing plays and that his senior established himself as capable of handling the hits and carries.
"Our running game has a chance to be efficient for us," Williams said. CoShik "deserves to be the starter. The way he finished last spring (and) pound for pound, he's probably the strongest guy on our football team and works as hard as anybody. Plus, his knowledge of our offense, it's as good as anybody on our team."
How many carries Williams could get remains to be seen. However, Phillips has seen enough this month to envision an increased load, especially since Williams is 10 pounds heavier.
Kentucky running backs coach Steve Pardue said Williams was already playing bigger than his size, believing the added weight enhances his ability to get through holes. In fact, the only question is how games will evolve and how he will be used depending on the situation.
What's clear is that the Hiram, Ga., native is hungry to seize his chance after spending most of his time in the background. So much so that he surprised coaches by participating Thursday after missing a couple of practices with minor hurts, playing as if he missed just a few snaps.
Returning quickly was no accident. After all, others' injuries are what got him off the bench, in the mix and now in the game plan of defenses.
"Being a freshman and having all those guys over me, I always had in the back of my mind to be like them," Williams said. "That's the motto I work by, to play hard and be the leader on the team.
"So, if I can put an ice bag on or tape my foot up or whatever is hurt, I'll try it to get back out there with my team."