LEXINGTON, Ky. — A.J. Rose had just finished football practice at the University of Kentucky on Tuesday and changed into shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers when he made an unexpected declaration: If he walked straight off that field and into a nearby forest without stopping to pick up a single supply, “I could survive for at least a week.”
First thing he’d do is build a shelter out of tree branches. Next, he’d use ancient methods to spark a fire. Then he’d seek the nearest water source, dig up a worm and fashion a fishing pole, line and hook from found objects.
That would all be pretty impressive stuff, but why is he telling you this? Because Rose is more than a 6-foot-1, 212-pound redshirt freshman running back for the Wildcats. He’s an Eagle Scout, and that means he learned a couple of things he’s already found useful on the football field: persistence and adaptability.
“I’m definitely going to fight for everything,” Rose said. Because no one climbs from Cub Scout to Eagle Scout, a journey of about a dozen years in his case, by accident. It requires a remarkable commitment. “When I was growing up, I thought I wouldn’t finish because it was just so long and you had to do so much. But my grandma and my auntie wanted me to finish, and I did it. It taught me so much, like how to make something out of nothing.”
That’s an important skill for a running back, who will occasionally find himself under siege by an opposing defense and in need of a creative escape plan. Rose’s high school highlights show a player powerful enough to plow through an impediment but also nimble enough to zig, zag, spin and speed away from trouble.
“I like A.J.’s physicality. I like that he is fast. He shows a burst that we really didn’t know he had,” Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said recently. “He’s got a chance to run between the tackles and he’s a guy that can run outside, too.”
Rose surveys his surroundings and adapts accordingly. That was one of his final tests to achieve Eagle Scout status: two days alone in the woods with only a water bottle, rope and knife. It took hours to snag his first meal.
“You had to be patient,” Rose said. “If you didn’t figure out how to catch a fish, you weren’t going to eat.”
Learning how to stick with a plan, trust a process, wait for something you’d rather have right now served Rose well last fall. A top-25 running back recruit out of high school, he became the odd man out in a two-back system at Kentucky that featured 1,000-yard rushers Boom Williams and Benny Snell, his fellow freshman from Ohio.
“It hurt. I wanted to play so bad,” said Rose, who had some long, hard phone conversations with his parents back home in Cleveland. “But I knew I didn’t know as much as everybody else and it was only going to hurt the team. If you can’t protect the quarterback, you can’t play at this level. That’s what I had to learn and that’s what I focused on — that and our route tree; I didn’t know all the different spots. Now I feel like I can say it in my sleep.”
A week and a half into preseason camp this year, Rose said he’s prouder of his consistency in picking up blitzes than he is of any long run he’s broken. It’s the little details, not the big plays, that have him in position to split time with Snell this fall.
“He has continued to progress in the offense,” Gran said on Tuesday. “A lot less of the mental errors and you just keep seeing that athleticism pop out.”
While Snell is a battering ram and back for his sophomore season, Kentucky lost its lightning bolt when Williams declared for the NFL draft after last season. Those complementary styles worked well for the Wildcats, meaning there is an opportunity now for Rose to fill the void.
Luckily, he’s grown up on the Boy Scout motto — be prepared — and seems to be seizing it.
“I’m not out there thinking as much, so I can play fast, have fun,” Rose said. “Whole different state of mind. I just want to get out there and show everybody what I’m capable of. I’m making plays this camp and the coaches are seeing it.”