Kentucky’s offensive line coach Mike Summers has conveyed a steady stream of tempered optimism over the course of the Cats’ preseason camp. The offensive line is short on experience but high on potential, and Kentucky’s season opener against Louisville in 9 short days will prove which factor weighs most heavily on the offense. Will the lack of experience lead to slipped blocks and closed lanes or will the young line’s potential compensate for the lack of time on the field? The only way to answer that question is by taking a look at the players.
The most important piece of Kentucky’s offensive line is senior guard Larry Warford. He nearly jumped ship to the NFL, but returned for a final season with the Cats, earning All-SEC preseason honors in the process. Warford is Kentucky’s most experienced man on the line, and should prove a stable source of experience and wisdom, as well as a physical wall, for the line’s otherwise unversed members. If Warford is lost to injury and can’t anchor the line, UK’s offense could be in trouble.
Matt Smith may not have the widespread recognition of Warford, but he’s a capable and experienced redshirt senior who will provide a steady hand and strong hold at center. Quarterback Maxwell Smith will be lining up behind Matt Smith, adding a layer of confusion for observers, but assuring a level of comfort between a QB and center who’ve worked together before. Smith has been the starter at Kentucky for three years and the Warford-Smith link will be the most solid on the line, opening up running lanes and creating an impenetrable wall on pass plays.
The final upperclassman starting on the line is Redshirt junior Kevin Mitchell. Although a first-time starter this year, he filled in for an injury-riddled line in 2011, playing in nine games before the year closed. Mitchell’s experience is primarily at left guard, but will be moving out to right tackle to complete a sturdy and seasoned right side with Larry Warford. Positional changes and limited experience may be Mitchell’s greatest challenges, but compared to the rest of the line he’s miles ahead.
The potential outweighs the experience with starting left tackle Darrian Miller. Although Miller played in 12 games last year thanks to extensive injuries on the line, he was often shaky on his feet and too weak to properly compete in the SEC. Reports suggest he’s much stronger and only going to get better, with specific praise coming from both Mike Summers and Larry Warford.
The final piece of Kentucky’s starting offensive line is redshirt freshman Zach West. He’s never seen the field, and will undoubtedly see more than his fair share of growing pains as the speed and strength of competitive play crush him. West did spend time traveling with the team and worked with the 2nd team last year, which will help ease him into the culture. But the only way he’s going to learn the harshness of the field is by making mistakes and figuring out ways to avoid the label “weakest link”.
Kentucky’s offensive line suffers from an apparent lack of depth. There are only four linemen with the requisite skill and experience to be fully comfortable in SEC play as of today, leaving few contingencies in the case of widespread injury. Trevino Woods is likely going to be the most viable piece of the line outside of the starters. Woods is a redshirt senior without much in the way of game experience on the line, but a lot in the way of time to mature and practice with the system. He may still shudder with every snap in conference play, but he’s got the maturity and knowledge to make him a reliable tool.
Two redshirt sophomores, Max Godby and Teven Eatmon-Nared, make up the next-most competent pair of linemen. Eatmon-Nared is a 6’7″, 342 pound giant whose body may serve to provide depth at guard, while Godby is a walk-on center who has the unenviable task of backing up experienced senior Matt Smith. Mike Summers has stressed a desire to have 7 or 8 reliable offensive linemen, meaning Godby and Eatmon-Nared may be called upon to prove their potential by stepping up to the line and performing.
Two others making it into UK’s offensive line two-deep are redshirt freshmen are Shaquille Love and John Gruenschlaeger. Neither player has seen college playtime, but Gruenschlaeger is a hulking behemoth at 6’11″ and 339 pounds, while Love has shown adaptability by switching from defensive tackle to guard. Both players have earned their spot on the depth chart with steady improvement, but Kentucky may be hurting if either inexperienced and developing freshman is subjected to significant time on the field.
Kentucky may have a gap in the middle, but has a strong crop of young offensive linemen. Zach Myers is lauded as a strong and capable young center touted to replace Smith as a the starter next year, while Jordan Watson is the highly-recruited right guard set to fill Warford’s spot on the line. Jordan Swindle, T.J. Jones, and Jon Toth are three additional freshmen prospects who could also slot into the rotation as they develop throughout the season, and will certainly factor into the offensive line picture over the next few years.
Last year’s offensive line suffered from high expectations. This year’s line might very well do the opposite and flourish under lowered expectations. With three new full-time starters and a very shallow bench, the success of the line might very well depend on the health of the starters. If Kentucky is forced to reach deeper and deeper into the depth chart, the inexperience will undoubtedly begin to show and the offense will suffer.
Standing up to daunting SEC defenses is a harrowing task, and it’s going to take a lot for this young and eclectic group of linemen to do it. If they coalesce under the leadership of Warford and Smith, avoid injuries, and make significant developments before conference play, they might just have a chance.
Filed Under: Football
About the Author: Corey Tincher is a lifelong Kentucky fan and professional writer who couldn't keep the two worlds apart. He is the lead contributor for StraitCats.com and literally wrote the book on the 2012 NCAA Tournament Championship run, Big Blue Articles: Kentucky Basketball in the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Follow @Corey_Tincher on Twitter for more Kentucky news and discussion.