New York state of mind gives UK football's Ramon Jefferson confidence to compete in SEC

Brett Dawson
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — You see his hometown on the roster and you hear Ramon Jefferson’s thick Bronx accent and your mind goes to basketball. 

With his big-city Bravado, the Kentucky running back sounds like so many of those hard-nosed New York City point guards whose voices you’ve heard. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Jefferson said, smiling like he’s heard this before. “I can play a little ball. I got a little jump shot, a little crossover move.” 

University of Kentucky running back Ramon Jefferson. Aug. 3, 2022

That’s the sport his hometown is known for. 

But for Jefferson, the Bronx was the launching bad for a pigskin ascent that’s taken him to FCS programs at Maine and Sam Houston state, with a stop at Garden City Community College in between. 

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His final collegiate stop is his biggest step up yet. An FCS second-team All-American last season at Sam Houston — he rushed for 1,155 yards and 13 touchdowns — Jefferson is set to test his mettle in a crowded Kentucky backfield against the elites of the SEC. 

“I have big-play ability,” Jefferson says. “Obviously, you know, big question is just, can it translate to this level, which I feel like it can.”

The competition is stiff. And it’s early yet. But Jefferson has looked like a guy who belongs. 

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The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder can take a hit. And when he accelerates, he can go. 

Kentucky quarterback Will Levis has described Jefferson as “a bowling ball” and “a little Mighty Mouse,” likening him to former NFL running back Doug Martin, who played seven seasons in the league after a college career at Boise State. 

“He's got a good feel,” Levis said. “You see he bounces it when he's supposed to bounce it, he cuts when he's supposed to cut.” 

That’s the stuff that jumps out on film, but when Levis threw passes to Jefferson in the summer, running routes against air, he didn’t get a real feel for the running back’s burst. But “it’s pretty special to see what he can do” against a live defense, Levis said. 

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Kentucky has lots of guys with a chance to do special things. 

The running back room’s best player is its biggest question mark. Senior Chris Rodriguez, who’s rushed for 2,739 yards and 27 touchdowns in 32 games, is practicing with the team but his playing status is uncertain after a summer arrest for DUI

Mitch Barnhart, UK’s athletic director, said Saturday the school is “working through all those pieces” and when or whether Rodriguez plays will be “a collective decision.” 

With or without him, the Wildcats are stacked with backs, steepening Jefferson’s climb to playing time. Kavosiey Smoke, JuTahn McClain, Mike Drennen II and La’Vell Wright all figure to fight for carries. 

“Everybody’s individuals, but all together we are a running back room,” Jefferson said. “Being able to come into a room where obviously it’s competition but guys are coming together in unison, I feel like that’s a big part of why I came here, to be a part of something special on the highest level of college football.”

University of Kentucky running back Ramon Jefferson. Aug. 3, 2022

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He also came to play in an NFL-style offense under new coordinator Rich Scangarello that Jefferson thinks plays to his strengths. Jefferson is versatile. He’s able to pick up protections, take handoffs out of the backfield and do damage in passing routes.

And he’s confident. 

Some of that comes from the city that raised him. 

Though Jefferson has taken to Lexington — “You got a Apple Store,” he noted, saying with some surprise that the city has “a whole lot going on” — there’s no missing the New Yorker in him. It’s apparent in his accent, unmistakable in his mannerisms. 

And though it’s better known for basketball, the city produces football talent, too. Jefferson points to Brooklyn products Curtis Samuel, a Washington Commanders wide receiver, and Taysir Mack, a wide receiver from Pitt who was in camp with the 49ers. 

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And “obviously myself,” Jefferson said, “moving up in the world.”

This is his biggest move yet. But he’s found his way before.

Jefferson jumped from Maine — where during a 2017 redshirt season he studied under offensive coordinator Laim Coen, who last year held that position at UK — to junior college and then to Sam Houston, an FCS power that went 11-1 last season. 

“At the end of the day, if you make the right reads, you’re in the right spot and you have talent, you can make plays,” Jefferson says. “That’s something that I always pride myself on. Obviously moving up, it’s something that you just got to be fearless. You just got to go for it. That’s something that I knew I was signing myself up for, and now I’m glad I did it.”