Gamecocks' front four presents major challenge for Kentucky offensive line

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 27, 2012 

Larry Warford leans over to the microphone in front of him and mumbles something under his breath.

"I've got this over here," Kentucky's senior offensive lineman says in something just shy of a whisper.

It's not Warford's normal, playful banter with the media.

Instead he's showing just how quiet fellow linemen Darrian Miller and Zach West were when they arrived on campus last fall.

The two Lexington natives, Miller, a Bryan Station standout and West, a former star at Lexington Christian, were constantly ribbed last season for their strong, silent personas.

"I thought both of them were mute at first," Coach Joker Phillips joked earlier this season.

UK's trenches are not a place for quiet guys. Calls have to be yelled out from one side of the line to the other. If a defense goes in motion, the left side has to warn the right side about what's coming.

"I thought they would try to text each other during the game," Phillips continued.

Last spring when Warford was filling in for Matt Smith at center, he was constantly calling out Miller and West.

"They're whispering, I was like, 'Talk to me, man," Warford said. "Thank goodness they've gotten a lot better at it."

West didn't realize how different it would be making that move verbally.

"In high school, you don't have to communicate that much, but now it's the whole line that has to hear you," he said. "We're finally coming around here where we're starting to get loud."

And because of guys like Miller and West, UK's offensive line is much improved. In four games, it has given up just four sacks, third in the Southeastern Conference and 33rd in the nation.

Kentucky (1-3, 0-1 SEC) lost 38-0 at Florida, but it wasn't because of a lack of execution and effort by the Cats' offensive line, Phillips said.

"I thought this offensive line did as good as any we've been around against the Florida team because we ran the ball for 5 yards a carry," the coach said. "And they protected. ... So I do feel a little bit better, a lot better, with this offensive line."

The line of Smith, Warford, Miller, West and Kevin Mitchell will have its toughest test of the season against No. 6 South Carolina on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.

"It probably will be one of our bigger challenges, not just so far, but for the whole season," Warford said of facing the South Carolina defensive front of Devin Taylor (6-foot-8, 267 pounds), Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 256), Kelcy Quarles (6-4, 286) and Chaz Sutton (6-5, 248).

Clowney, a sophomore defensive end, has 4.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. Sutton, a junior defensive end, has three sacks.

The Gamecocks (4-0, 2-0) are fifth in the nation in sacks, with 15, including gobbling up quarterbacks eight times in two SEC games. UK has a seemingly vulnerable quarterback in Maxwell Smith, who suffered a shoulder separation two weeks ago against Western Kentucky.

South Carolina's line leads a defense that is 17th in the nation in tackles for loss with 30 for 127 yards. Opponents are managing just 67 yards a game on the ground against the Gamecocks, who are eighth in the nation versus the run. They are the country's 19th-best defense, giving up 300.3 yards a game.

And they're just getting warmed up.

"All those guys can really play," South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said of his defense. "You hit first on the quarterback, then you got seven guys that can mess around and cover a lot of area and cover guys and so forth."

The front four are so talented that they don't stunt much. They show few blitzes.

They don't have to, UK offensive line coach Mike Summers explained.

"They win one-on-one battles and because they do, it makes their defensive scheme so much better," he said. "They don't have to compromise their coverage to get pressure on the quarterback."

When you play in the SEC, you expect to face great defensive lines every game, but South Carolina is special.

"These guys are a notch above and certainly we're going to have to play our best game for us to have a chance to move the ball," Summers said. "We're excited about it. We're excited about the challenge of playing against some really good players."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241Twitter: @jenheraldleaderBlog:

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