UK football notebook: Position change to center a test Kentucky's Toth has finally passed

Herald-Leader staff writerMay 3, 2014 

There were times last spring when Jon Toth didn't know which end was up.

And that wasn't just because the Kentucky center spends much of his time with his head between his legs.

Like every other player, Toth was learning a new offense under a new coaching staff. He had the added enjoyment of learning a new position.

It took him a long time to even figure out the best way to snap the ball.

"When I first started, I'd always snap it and look back to make sure it got there," Toth said. "Gradually, I figured out, it's going to get there even if I don't look back."

Right tackle Jordan Swindle said there were times last spring when he worried about his longtime friend and roommate.

"It just seemed like he was on the ground a lot," Swindle said. "I couldn't figure out what was wrong with him."

It's a credit to Toth that he was able to make that transition at all, offensive line coach John Schlarman said.

"A lot of people talk about, 'Well, he'd be a great center' when they talk about an offensive lineman, but that's not just a natural thing: snapping a ball between your legs and then blocking a 300-pound guy in front of you," Schlarman said. "It takes some getting used to."

Swindle winced when asked about the challenges of playing center.

"I hate even thinking about doing that," he said. "It's so awkward, almost like you're leaning forward and have to throw the ball backward, then if you have to step back, you've got to rock. I couldn't imagine."

And just as Toth, who started the second game of the season last year and maintained the position the rest of the way, was getting used to all of the nuances of the spot, he got sick.

The player out of Indianapolis weighed in at 285 pounds early in the season, then got the flu before the Alabama game on Oct. 12 and played the final six games of the season at about 270 pounds.

"That's really unheard of for a guy who had to play in the SEC at 270 pounds," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

Now that Toth has had a season to figure some things out and has gotten his weight up to 298, the sophomore has shown some serious progress.

Multiple times in the spring, Brown called the center UK's most improved player on offense, playing "much, much better than he ever did last year.

"He's got a better feel," the offensive coordinator continued. "He snaps the ball better, more consistently. Knows his assignment; he's stronger. So every area he's made a lot of improvement."

Toth has gotten more than 800 or 900 game reps under his belt, which helps.

"So over time — and he's a very, very smart guy — he's picked up on all the little details and things that will help him execute his assignment," Schlarman said.

Swindle doesn't worry so much about Toth now.

His friend has been holding his own this spring.

"He's just consistently getting better and better," UK's right tackle said. "Every day I see it. He's definitely one of those guys who leads by example. He always does what he's supposed to do. He's always got a good attitude and trying to make everyone else better."

Offensive line influx

Strangely, five of Kentucky's six confirmed commitments for the 2015 class are offensive linemen, most recently the nation's second-rated center Luke Hiers.

Does offensive line coach John Schlarman have the Midas touch?

Can he put his feet up on his desk the rest of the way?

Not likely.

"Have to recruit them all the way until signing day," he said. "So whether you're trying to get them in the boat or they're in the boat and you've got to keep them in there, you have to continue to recruit them."

Even Schlarman has been taken aback by how quickly the offensive linemen have committed to Kentucky this season. You'll remember last season, he and Neal Brown had to trudge a mile in a snow storm to get the last piece of the Cats' recruiting class in center Bunchy Stallings.

Schlarman isn't sure why this class, which includes Hiers, Levon Livingston, Logan Stenberg, Larry Wells and Mason Wolfe, has come together so quickly at his position.

"Sometimes it just happens like that, and you can't really describe it," he said. "Some positions you fill up in a hurry, others you take all the way up to the witching hour.

"The most important thing is doing a great job of evaluating the talent out there and then trusting your evaluations and picking the right guys who fit what you do."

Many of the 2015 commitments, who Schlarman can't publicly discuss, were on campus together at the same time, which helps.

"With linemen, it's a tight group," Schlarman said. "So when a guy feels comfortable around other guys, he has a sense of belonging and that type of thing, and that might've had a factor in it, too."

He also said he's hopeful that like the early commitments of the 2014 class, this group will do what it can to actively bring in other position players.

Extra tutoring

Quarterback Patrick Towles wasn't the only Kentucky player who sought the services of up-tempo offensive guru Donny Walker during the off-season.

Walker, the former Franklin County coach and national consultant on this offensive style, worked with UK tight end Steven Borden as well. Coming from a small high school and junior college without full-time tight ends coaches, Borden has admitted that he's been raw coming into Kentucky.

But he's shown big improvement, Walker said.

"We worked on how to catch the ball, how to release, how to use his body a little bit more, run his routes," said Walker, who owns "The System Camps."

"We worked on timing and things like that. He's a heck of an athlete. To be able to play, to contribute in the SEC should speak volumes about his athletic ability without a ton of coaching. He was a lot of fun to work with, too."

After the spring game, Brown seemed pleased with Borden's progress. He got a considerable amount of work in the spring with Ronnie Shields out with an undisclosed injury.

"Borden, he did a nice job," Brown said of the tight end, who caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Reese Phillips in the final spring scrimmage. "He caught a touchdown. It's hard to assess his blocking until you get back and watch the film. We've got to get depth there. ... He's gotten better, much more consistent."

Extra points

There are always little tidbits that don't fit anywhere in spring game notes, so here are a few that were of interest:

■ While it sounds certain that punter Landon Foster and place-kicker Austin MacGinnis have earned their starting spots, depth at those positions is shallow. Max Strong is a consistent backup, but UK may be looking outside for more help, new UK special teams coach Craig Naivar said.

"We're actively recruiting some walk-ons to do that as well," Naivar said. "We have a young man that is going to come in as a walk-on that will help us at punter. So we have some help coming and we have some help here."

■ Apparently Jacob Hyde missed most of the spring with an undisclosed injury, but the redshirt freshman defensive lineman was able to play some in the final scrimmage: "After the game, he seemed to be fine, so I think he'll be rockin' and rollin' here pretty soon at full speed," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We'd like to see good nose guard play from him in the fall."

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

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