John Clay: Kentucky offensive line well-healed for a better season

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistAugust 28, 2012 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

A year ago, the offensive line was to be the strength of the Kentucky football team. There was talent. There was experience. There were the necessary attributes for cohesion and execution.

Unfortunately, the one thing lacking was perhaps the most important thing: health.

Injuries spiked almost from the first day of training camp. Practices were missed. Cohesion suffered. By season's end, the offensive line was deemed a disappointment.

"We didn't do the things we wanted to do," center Matt Smith admitted Monday.

This season, the offensive line is considered a question mark on this Kentucky football team.

There is youth. There is inexperience. There are all the facets that cause a coach concern heading into the first game of the season.

Fortunately, this year's unit has enjoyed the one thing that last year's did not: health.

There have been bumps and bruises. A day or two have been missed. Overall, however, the guys up front on the offensive side have been able to use the time allocated for the preparation needed.

"I would go as far to say that we might be ahead of where we were last year going into this game," Smith said, five days from Sunday's opener at Louisville.

His coaches agree.

"It would have been very nice to have had that group last year healthy the whole way," said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders after Tuesday's practice. "We've had pretty much the same group the whole time (this fall) so they've been able to get used to communicating with each other, getting used to working with each other."

"We've plugged a few new guys in there," offensive line coach Mike Summers said Tuesday. "That cohesiveness of those guys understanding the man next to them and being able to feel comfortable with where those guys are, is so important and I've seen that develop over this fall camp."

Not that all are young pups. Smith is a senior from Louisville who is on the watch list for the Rimington Award, given to the outstanding center in the Football Championship Subdivision. Right guard Larry Warford is a senior from Richmond who is on several pre-season All-SEC lists and on the watch list for the Lombardi Award, given to the best college football lineman or linebacker.

On the left side, however, are sophomore tackle Darrian Miller and redshirt freshman guard Zach West. At right tackle is junior Kevin Mitchell, who until this year was primarily a reserve.

"We've got some young guys, but they've been working hard and we've been working hard with them to get them all caught up and teach them the things that we know," Smith said.

"Larry and Matt have done a great job of providing leadership for us," Summers said.

It certainly doesn't hurt to have a senior as savvy as Smith, especially at center, the position responsible for most of the offensive line assignment calls.

"It's extremely important, but Matt Smith has been that important since he was a sophomore," Summers said. "My relationship with him has been extraordinary so that we have been on the same page and adjustments that need to be made are easily communicated."

That will be especially important Sunday. Louisville Coach Charlie Strong doesn't just like to blitz; he loves to blitz. With Kentucky's inexperience in a couple of key line spots, it's almost certain that Strong will bring a barrage of blitzes.

"Most defensive coaches lock themselves up in their staff room and they sit around there and deviously try to figure out how they can mess up the offensive line," Summers said with a smile. "Coach Strong does a great job with their defense, and certainly they play with an awful lot of confidence. That'll be a huge challenge for us."

"At the same time," Smith said, "it's helped (practicing against) a defense under Coach (Rick) Minter that does a lot of crazy things, too."

So this time around, what Kentucky's line might lack from last year in experience, it hopes it has made up for in preparation.

There's no substitute for good health.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com

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