There's usually a presumed drop-off anytime a team loses four starters on the offensive line.
That might not be the case with Kentucky in 2010.
Sure, tackles Zipp Duncan and Justin Jeffries, center Jorge Gonzalez and guard Christian Johnson and their 123 career starts will be missed, but the Wildcats say they still have enough talent and experience to keep the bottom from falling out.
Guard Stuart Hines, the lone returning starter, has played in 25 games with 13 starts. Tackle Brad Durham started seven games the past two years when Jeffries was hurt, and Billy Joe Murphy started three games as a redshirt freshman in 2008. That's not to mention Jake Lanefski, who's limited while recovering from knee surgery but started four games at guard in 2008. UK Coach Joker Phillips said Lanefski will be given a long look at center in the fall.
"It's not like we're inexperienced," Durham said. "I've played a lot. Stuart's played a lot, Billy Joe has played a lot, and Larry (Warford) played a lot last year. We just don't have those starts under our belts that everybody sees, but we have played a lot of snaps and that will carry us a long way."
UK will also have several players with extremely high ceilings in the lineup. Former coach Rich Brooks was miffed that Hines was left off the All-Southeastern Conference teams as a sophomore, and Warford has the size (6-foot-3, 335 pounds) and footwork to develop into a standout. The coaches are also high on Chandler Burden, a strong, athletic 6-4, 296-pounder who moved from defensive end to try to replace Duncan at left tackle.
"I feel like, talent-wise, there won't be much of a drop-off," Hines said. "We've got big, strong, talented guys ready to step in and take over."
Phillips agreed: "I know they're more athletic than what we've had here in a long time."
The UK offensive line still has a long way to go before it's a finished product, however, because the players are still getting used to the changes brought in by new line coach Mike Summers.
"It's been a big challenge for them," Summers said. "They're trying to experience working with new guys and working with each other, along with trying to decipher a new language and new communication and techniques that I brought in. Then you throw a defensive guy into the middle of all of it, and sometimes we've had some rough moments. But I have been encouraged by their attitude and effort and perseverance to continue to try and work through their frustration to try and become better."
Hines said the linemen have to focus more on reading defensive formations than they did in the past.
"There's a lot of stuff that you've got to think about now when you get to the line, and you've got to do it in a split second," Hines said. "You've got to get up there and make your calls really quick, see the defense, see what's going on, and we have a lot more calls and stuff we read off the defense. That's what has a lot of us thinking and not being able to go full speed. But by now, we need to be getting better and getting used to it and being ready to go."
Summers said the hardest thing for offensive linemen to learn is to put their bodies in the right position while playing with a low pad level, exploding and snapping their hips, and then covering the distance between themselves and the players they're assigned to block.
"It's not easy," he said. "Understanding who to block is the first phase, and I think we're close to accomplishing that. Then the real battle comes in learning how to block, and that will be a never-ending battle toward perfection, and I don't know if we ever get there, but we've got to be a whole lot closer to it than we are right now."
Summers said his unit's positive attitude and athleticism can help offset the learning curve. Durham and Hines sound confident that things will come together.
"Spring is learning time anyway," Durham said. "It's a good time to come out and make mistakes and learn from them."
Hines said the unit has to watch a lot of film and put in extra work during its off time this summer.
"We just need to work on doing the steps and all the stuff Coach Summers wants us to do," he said.