John Clay: Successful position change at center of Kentucky offense

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistSeptember 3, 2014 

Jon Toth met Jeff Saturday once back in high school, when both Toth and Saturday's son, Jeff, attended Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis.

Saturday was the Colts' All-Pro center and Toth was a mere prep offensive lineman, and though the meeting was brief it was still "really cool" and in the end possibly a harbinger.

"Looking back on it," Toth said, "I had no idea I was going to play football in college, let alone be a center."

Yet here he is, all 6-foot-5, 300 pounds of him, a starting center in the SEC, tossed sink-or-swim into the unfamiliar position as a redshirt freshman early last season.

At the time, the UK staff said Toth has the skills. He has the athleticism. He just needs experience. Lumps will come, admitted the coaches, but in the long run — fingers crossed — it will work out.

So it has. Monday, after Kentucky's 59-14 blow-by of visiting Tennessee-Martin, the SEC announced Toth was the conference's offensive lineman of the week.

"I was excited," said the soft-spoken Toth, who doesn't give the appearance that he gets too excited about many things. "I wasn't really expecting to receive that award, but it was cool to hear that I got it."

"He played his best game since he's been here," declared offensive coordinator Neal Brown.

"He got us in a lot of good positions with the calls he made in his protections and in the run game," said offensive line coach John Schlarman. "Things he may not have done last year."

Toth played guard and tackle in high school and aspired to be a college tackle, so what prompted the coaches to put him at center?

"Smart guys have always done well in this offense," Schlarman said. "He's an athletic guy, and he's very intelligent."

Toth is, after all, a 2013 SEC Academic Honor Roll member who in the media guide answered the sentence "I couldn't live without my ... brain."

"I think intelligence is a big part of that position," Schlarman said. "You need guys that can decipher things and react to the change in front of them, because a lot is going on there in the middle. People are going in every which direction there and you've got to make sure that you are with the right guy."

Ask Toth where he is more comfortable this year compared to last season, and that is his answer. He knows more about where defenders will be and what they will do after the snap. Part of that is experience. Part of that is film work. Part is smarts. Part is discipline.

"He's a disciplined guy by nature," Schlarman said.

Comfort requires time, however. Toth said he didn't hesitate accepting the position change — "I had total faith in my coaches," he said. "He said he thought I could do best at that position, so I went with it," — but admits to needing an adjustment.

"At first, you worry about the snap a lot," Toth said.

"But he seemed comfortable with the ball in his hand," Schlarman said. "A lot of guys aren't comfortable with the ball in their hand. He did and when we saw that, we thought he might have a chance to be a really good center."

It wasn't until near the end of last season that he started feeling comfortable at the position. Asked when he began feeling totally comfortable, Toth answered, "When I had a year under my belt."

He also got sick during the 2013 season. Toth didn't miss a start but did lose weight. So he hit the weight room hard over the summer, got his weight back up, his strength back up.

"I'm proud of him because he's had a great offseason," Schlarman said. "He's worked out hard in the weight room. He's put in a lot of time in the film room, on his own, not prompted by me. And then he went out there and proved that on the first Saturday that he had an opportunity to do it."

Proved it to the point where he was recognized.

"Sometimes it pans out and sometimes it doesn't," Schlarman said, "but Jon's really taken the position and run with it."

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

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