Cats take 'What happened?' personally

Offensive line's execution gets poor grades in opener

mstory@herald-leader.comSeptember 7, 2011 

Wildcats quarterback Morgan Newton (12) was sacked by Western Kentucky linebacker Andrew Jackson in September last year. Kentucky won that game 14-3, but the Hilltoppers' defense exposed UK's shortcomings on offense.

MARK CORNELISON | STAFF

It's usually a bad sign when an offensive line coach becomes a media magnet.

After Kentucky's Tuesday football practice, reporters gathered around UK line coach Mike Summers.

As the questions mounted about the disappointing effort of the Kentucky offensive front in UK's season-opening 14-3 win over Western Kentucky University, the frustration rose off Summers like heat off asphalt.

When UK's 2011 football training camp opened, it was widely assumed that the bedrock of a Wildcats offense that lacks proven play-makers was an offensive line with four returning starters plus a part-time regular back.

Yet against WKU, the UK offensive front seemed to get pushed around. Opposite a Sun Belt Conference defense, UK managed a meager 93 yards rushing. After giving up only 19 quarterback sacks all last season, Kentucky surrendered three to Western.

On Monday, WKU head coach Willie Taggart boasted that the Hilltoppers had "out-physicaled" Kentucky.

Which is why Summers — a respected line coach who built the offensive fronts that made Bobby Petrino's high-octane offenses at Louisville go — found himself facing a healthy heaping of 'what happened?' queries Tuesday.

His answer was that we didn't see the Kentucky line that was touted through most of the summer.

"My frustration started a long time before last Thursday night," Summers said. "August the eighth, I lose four (starting) offensive linemen for most of fall camp. What should have been a rallying point for our offense became trying to work guys together and make something from that."

Starting center Matt Smith sat out the WKU game because of an undisclosed injury and is "doubtful" to play this week against Central Michigan. Veteran left guard Stuart Hines did not start against Western after spraining a knee. He did play as a reserve and will play Saturday against Central Michigan.

Right tackle Billy Joe Murphy, the one regular who had not had health issues during training camp, strained an MCL against WKU. His status for this week's game is up in the air, though Summers is hopeful he'll play.

Said Summers: "Regardless of who is on the field for us, they have to perform. This is a no-excuses business, go out and play. But, obviously, we would like to have our best 11 on the field."

Even with backups Jake Lanefski (center) and Kevin Mitchell (left guard) starting in place of Smith and Hines against Western, most would say an SEC school should have had more control of the line of scrimmage than UK did against Western.

Why didn't that happen?

"It's hard to say, really," Hines said Tuesday. "(The injuries) did play a little bit of a role. It's not an excuse for how we played, but obviously having everybody there, practicing every day, does help."

Larry Warford, Kentucky's pre-season All-SEC right guard, said that going into the Western game "I felt like we had a good week of practice. It didn't translate over to the field. We didn't have the right focus. We had too many individuals messing up on certain plays."

Warford says UK grades its linemen after each game in three areas: effort, assignments and technique. "I don't think any of us (had a passing grade) in all three," he said.

Summers said the problem "was execution. We were really good in our assignments. Our whole offense, for it to work, has to have everyone executing. That didn't happen."

After looking at the film, Summers said Warford, backup center Lanefski and left tackle Chandler Burden were bright spots.

"I thought Larry played well. I thought Chandler played pretty good," the UK line coach said. "Jake, for everything we asked him to do, I thought he handled those things pretty well."

With the status of Smith and Murphy uncertain for Central Michigan, Summers says Kentucky "will mix and match and get five guys out there we really believe in."

One problem the coach should not face is motivation. This week has seen the Cats O-line widely panned.

Says Hines: "People are going to think whatever they think until we come out and show them differently."

UK head coach Joker Phillips says the Cats offensive line "took (what happened against Western) personal. And they ought to. ... I expect those guys to play much better this week."

Among many good things that would mean for Kentucky football, it would figure to make next week much quieter on the media front for the Cats' offensive line coach.

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