Scouting the UK offensive line: Smith, Warford anchor young squad

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 19, 2012 

  • Scouting the offensive line

    The main man: Coaches aren't shy about saying senior Larry Warford could be one of the best lineman in school history when he leaves UK. The 6-foot-3, 333-pounder from Richmond was rated among the SEC's top linemen in pre-season polls.

    The supporting cast: Matt Smith, a two-year starter at center, coupled with Warford, have been strong leaders for a line that is mostly untested and unproven. Darrian Miller and Kevin Mitchell both showed promise as backups most of last season and should be strong this season. Don't be surprised to see freshmen play an important role as well.

    Newcomer to watch: Zach West, a former Lexington Christian standout, used his red-shirt year to get stronger and absorb the playbook. As the penciled-in starter at left guard, he is expected to do big things.

    Outlook: Perhaps the biggest concern out of the Blue-White game this spring was the lack of discernible depth on the offensive line. The Cats clearly had some strength and athleticism in their first group, but the second group struggled. But fall camp, including some strong freshmen contenders, has made coaches and linemen more optimistic. If the first group can stay healthy, it could be a surprise team strength by season's end.

  • This is the fourth in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football team position by position. Read the other installments on Kentucky.com. Coming Tuesday: Quarterbacks

Matt Smith can see an opponents' defense with his eyes shut tight.

Kentucky's senior center spends most of a football game having to visualize the defenses with his head in between his legs, arms outstretched, ready to send the ball to the quarterback.

"Even before the snap, he's looking between his legs and if the defensive line moves, I have to tell him what happened and then he'll call it out without even looking," right guard Larry Warford said. "He'll call (the blocks) without even looking. He's just so impressive intellectually."

Smith's ability to make block changes becomes even more impressive when the amount of time he has to make the changes is considered.

"Between two and three seconds, that's it; that's all he gets," said Kentucky offensive line coach Mike Summers.

To hear red-shirt freshman Zach West describe Smith, you'd think he's a 6-foot-4, 291-pound psychic.

"He knows what's going to happen before it happens," West said. "He's been here so long and he knows everything about the offense."

Warford, perennially voted one of the Southeastern Conference's top linemen, can't say enough about his friend and cohort in the trenches. He called his fellow senior the most intelligent player he's ever been around.

"I've never seen somebody so smart in my life as far as offensive line play," Warford added. "He can tell you anything about every play against every defense. I still struggle with that sometimes."

Warford isn't the only one high on Smith. Summers, called Smith "one of the smartest football players I've ever been around."

That's high praise from a coach who has helped send more than his share of linemen onto the NFL.

Dissecting defenses didn't always come so easily for Smith, who arrived on UK's campus as a defensive lineman and had to make the position switch.

"It was tough my first couple of years here, especially since I'd only played defense in high school," Smith said. "The switch over to offense was like a totally new world for me."

But Smith committed himself to learning his new position, studied the playbook like he studied for classes (he's a straight-A student, Summers said) and figured out what made defenses tick.

Several years later, the former Louisville Saint Xavier standout is on the Rimington Trophy watch list for the nation's top center.

"He has very good football instincts," Summers said. "He can fill in the pieces when they don't look exactly the way they're supposed to. ... When I convey ideas to him, they resonate with him and he understands what I say. I don't know if I've ever had a better relationship with a player."

Smith's ability to be Summers' proxy on the field has become incredibly important this season with Warford and Smith being the only returning starters on the offensive line.

This summer the duo were charged with getting a young, green group up to speed quickly.

West said when he has a question, he immediately seeks out Smith as do the all the newcomers.

Helping those younger guys has benefitted the UK center, too, he said.

"It kind of helps as we're teaching them things, we're also showing them things that they should see, which in turn helps us," Smith said.

It helps him continue to see even when he can't see.

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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