Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks and his staff have slowly built the UK offensive line from the ground up. When Brooks arrived in 2003, he barely had enough linemen to conduct a spring practice.
It took awhile, but thanks to good recruiting and player development, the Kentucky offensive line has been molded into perhaps the team's most effective unit.
A year after leading the Southeastern Conference and finishing fourth in the country in fewest sacks allowed, UK is again No. 1 in the league in that category, giving up just five in five games. And unlike years past, the front five is winning battles at the line of scrimmage. UK is averaging 167.4 rushing yards per game. If that total holds up, it would be the highest average since 1996.
This season's numbers weren't compiled against chopped liver, either. UK is coming off a three-game stretch that included No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Alabama and No. 22 South Carolina. The day after UK's 28-26 loss to the Gamecocks, Brooks made a point of recognizing the offensive linemen.
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"Those guys don't get a lot of credit," he said. "They've done some good things with our running game against quality defenses, if not superior, outstanding, great; you can name the adjective. The protection has been by and large pretty good. This group has done some pretty good things."
The biggest thing the Wildcats have going for them is experience. Left tackle Zipp Duncan, left guard Christian Johnson and center Jorge Gonzalez are all fifth-year seniors, and Justin Jeffries is a fourth-year senior. The entire line has 75 career starts between them.
"These guys should be good; most of them have been here five years," UK head coach of the offense Joker Phillips said. "That's where our strength is. Two years ago, our strength was at the skill positions, and we had a lot of production out of those guys. But we gave up a lot of sacks and minus-yards plays because those offensive linemen were really young then. Now they're old, and they should be the strength of our program."
Duncan said years of battling together have paid dividends.
"We're just all on the same page," Duncan said. "We're communicating well. We've got guys who've played in a lot of games, so we're understanding what's going on. It's all kind of come together."
Auburn Coach Gene Chizik said Kentucky's offensive line was the first thing that jumped out at him on film. He also noticed that UK is perfectly balanced — its 167.4 rushing average is identical to its average through the air.
"They are really good up front," Chizik said. "They are very big, very physical. You can tell they have been playing together. They understand what they are doing. It's the product of a system that has been in place for a while. They have got a good scheme. They are as balanced as you can get. They are very physical and good at what they do."
The Alabama defensive line has the reputation as one of the most physical in the nation, yet UK ran for 133 yards, the most anyone has compiled on the Crimson Tide by far. And South Carolina was second in the SEC in sacks before UK held it to a goose egg. After performing so well against good defenses, Duncan feels the sky's the limit for the Kentucky offensive line.
"We realize now that we can run the ball on pretty much anybody," Duncan said. "That's going to give us confidence week in and week out."
And the offensive line is an area where the UK staff has recruited well, which has resulted in plenty of depth and some promising young players.
The Cats quickly signed tackle Brad Durham after his scholarship was pulled by U of L. He's currently replacing the injured Jeffries at right tackle and figures to step right in next season when Jeffries' eligibility expires. The coaches like the potential of redshirt freshmen Matt Smith and Dave Ulinski, and true freshman Larry Warford is already in the rotation.
"The good thing is, if nothing happens injury-wise, we'll continue to have experience up front for a long time," Phillips said. "We just have to keep bringing in quality at that position. We've got a bright future."
Lanefski out for season
Sophomore offensive lineman Jake Lanefski will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Lanefski had been a key backup at center and both guard positions through the first five games. Cornerback Paul Warford (quadriceps) and Jeffries (Achilles tendon) completed practice Wednesday, and Brooks said they will be evaluated Thursday.