Scouting the offensive line: Cats strong, deep, but will they produce?

ccosby@herald-leader.comAugust 27, 2009 

  • SCOUTING THE OFFENSIVE LINE

    Coach: Jimmy Heggins is in his fifth season as the Kentucky offensive line coach. He spent most of his coaching career at his alma mater, Florida State, where he coached 10 linemen who were selected in the NFL Draft.

    The main man: Left tackle Zipp Duncan has played all over the field during his UK career: tight end, defensive end, left guard. Now he'll make the switch to the pivotal left tackle position as a senior, and he has the full confidence of UK Coach Rich Brooks and the coaching staff. Duncan was a second-team pre-season All-SEC selection by the media.

    The supporting cast: Senior Justin Jeffries is a two-year starter at right tackle. Another senior, Christian Johnson, started 12 games in 2006. Jorge Gonzalez probably will reclaim his job at center after sitting out a one-game suspension against Miami. Junior Marcus Davis and redshirt freshman Matt Smith will serve as fill-ins. Brooks is high on sophomore Stuart Hines, who can play both guard spots. Tackles Billy Joe Murphy and Brad Durham and guard Jake Lanefski are all reserves with starting experience.

    Newcomer to watch: When the Cats signed Larry Warford, they had to figure it would take at least a year or two for the Madison Central graduate to make an impact. But the 6-foot-3, 330-pound freshman was one of the early revelations during fall camp and at worst figures to be the No. 3 guard in the rotation.

    Outlook: Kentucky has gradually improved its numbers and its talent on the offensive line during the Brooks era. Now it's time for the production to reflect those improvements. UK has been decent but not overpowering on the line the past couple of seasons. If the Cats can raise their level of play, the offense should be light years better than it was a year ago.

    CHIP COSBY

When it comes to Kentucky's 2009 offensive line, there's no seniority, no pulling rank, no benefit of the doubt.

Sure, the Cats return four seniors with starting experience. But there are enough talented young bodies up front for the Wildcats that almost no job is safe.

It's a far cry from Coach Rich Brooks' first couple of years at UK, when the Cats often didn't have enough healthy linemen to hold scrimmages in the spring.

"We started this thing with four seniors that were starters when we first walked out here this fall, but you can look around and there might be only two of them starting during the first game," UK head coach of offense Joker Phillips said. "The other guys have to continue to work or they'll be splitting time."

Senior left tackle Zipp Duncan is the one guy who probably has a job sewn up. But right tackle Justin Jeffries, a two-year starter at left tackle, has to hold off Brad Durham, who started three games last year while Jeffries was out with a knee injury. And promising redshirt freshmen Dave Ulinski and Trevino Woods also are competing for time.

Senior Christian Johnson has 15 career starts and reclaimed his job in the spring after sitting out 2008. But freshman Larry Warford is not only pushing Johnson at left guard, he is chasing sophomore Stuart Hines at right guard.

Sophomore guard Jake Lanefski, who started four games as a redshirt freshman, could also return this week after missing most of camp with torn knee cartilage.

"With (Lanefski) back, that gives a lot of depth in the interior positions as well," Brooks said.

The center position is already in a state of flux with senior starter Jorge Gonzalez suspended for the opener against Miami University. Redshirt freshman Matt Smith and junior Marcus Davis are battling for that job.

"Everything's wide open all across the board," Jeffries said. "That puts pressure on all of us to compete at the highest level we can compete at. Everyday you've got to think about the fact that, 'I want this job. I've got to get this job.' That's the attitude you've got to take."

Also trying to move up the depth chart at tackle are Ulinski and Woods. Ulinski provides a physical presence in the run game, but he is still gaining experience taking on speed-rushers off the edge. Woods is light on his feet at 274 pounds, but he needs to step up his run blocking.

"If Ulinski can shore up his pass protection, he'll be a factor, because he's a better run blocker than most of the other ones," Phillips said. "We've just got to make sure he can hold up in the pass game."

The UK offensive line, thanks in part to quarterback Mike Hartline's ability to get rid of the ball quickly, led the Southeastern Conference in fewest sacks allowed last year with 13. Surprisingly, pass protection has been somewhat of an issue in fall camp, but Phillips said that will come around once the rotation gets settled.

Where UK appears to need major improvement is in run blocking. The Cats struggled to open holes for their backs last year and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. But Phillips said an improved passing game will solve much of his offense's running woes.

"The thing we've got to do to make us a better run team is throw the ball better," Phillips said. "When we had Andre (Woodson) and all those guys, people had to play off us because of our passing game, and we had a 1,000-yard rusher back there in Rafael (Little) when he was healthy. So we really believe if we throw the ball better, we'll run it better."

There could be a lot of shuffling going on until Brooks gets the kind of production he wants. The head coach said he thought last year's line would be his best at UK, and while they had their moments, they probably fell short of expectations.

Brooks has seemingly tempered his expectations so far in fall camp, but this year's line is deeper and more experienced than last year's.

"I know all the seniors have talked about going out strong," Jeffries said. "The thing about this year, if we have injuries, or one guy isn't getting the job done, another guy can come in who's just as good, so hopefully everything can come together this year."

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