Jon Toth may be gone, but Kentucky’s graduating center made sure he left some things behind.
Like his mistake-free footwork, which he tried to pass on after practice most days to teammate Bunchy Stallings.
Or his eye for every nuance along the line, which Toth tried to pass along to both Stallings and redshirt freshman Drake Jackson, who spent hours studying film with Toth.
“When you sit behind Toth, you’re in the film room with him, you’re watching him the entire game on the sidelines, you can ask him questions any time you want, you really can take advantage of that,” Jackson said recently of learning from the UK center, who started all but one game of his four seasons on campus.
Nearly every evening after practice in the fall, Toth could be seen side by side with Stallings, doing extra footwork and timing drills.
It was so helpful for Stallings that he’s trying to do the same with other teammates on the offensive line now, even though Toth has moved on and is awaiting his shot at the NFL.
“I’m still trying to keep it going,” Stallings said of the extra work after practice. “Me and a couple guys still keep it going. … It’s something we’re still doing. Me and Toth started it up and tried to make it a tradition.”
At the start of spring football, Stallings slid over from his spot at right guard, where he started seven games, to Toth’s center position.
Stallings, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound rising junior, is running with the first team this spring and being backed up by Jackson, who also could play at either of the guard spots.
Stallings isn’t Toth, but that’s OK. The new center will make the spot his own, Toth said on Pro Day.
“He had a lot of time in the system and knows the little nuances,” Toth said. “And I think that will really benefit him and also he can bend and he’s pretty athletic, which will be good for him.”
Stallings understands that he has big pads to fill when replacing a 48-game starter who tried to make playing that position an art form.
“Knowing the guy before me and how successful he was and for me to move over and try to exceed those expectations” is big, Stallings said.
“But it’s fun because now I can show what I learned from him and show what I can do and what I can bring to the table now and try to make the offense a little bit nastier on the offensive line.”
Offensive line coach John Schlarman is excited to see what Stallings can do at that spot, which he calls “your quarterback up front.” He would like to see a starter fully emerge at that position before the summer.
Each center makes the spot his own, which is what the coaches are seeing from Stallings, who has played in 15 games at Kentucky.
“I really like what I’m seeing out of him,” Schlarman said of Stallings. “He’s got experience. He’s got a lot of games under his belt now. He’s physical; he’s fast. He does a lot of things you like at center. He has a quick first step.”
Longtime starters return all around that center spot like left guard Nick Haynes, right tackle Kyle Meadows, left tackle Cole Mosier, as well as their backups — who often saw just as many snaps in games — in players like Landon Young, Logan Stenberg and George Asafo-Adjei.
UK also has players battling to get in the mix like Jackson and redshirt freshman Luke Fortner as well as junior-college standout Tate Leavitt, who has been moved to the interior line.
Schlarman doesn’t expect there to be much drop-off even with his line leader gone.
There’s plenty of depth and experience returning on the offensive line, which was a national semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award, which honors the nation’s top offensive line.
All of the players have been pushing one another this offseason, which can only help the offense as a whole, Jackson said.
“You’ll see a leap out of the whole group this spring,” the former Woodford County standout said. “We’ve got a really physical unit. Not just the ones but the twos and the threes, we’re all physical.”
Coaches got a longer look at Drew Barker on Tuesday when the team returned to the practice field after a 10-day hiatus for UK’s spring break.
Barker, who is returning from back surgery in November, has been ahead of schedule with his progress. On Tuesday, the junior took some sporadic reps in team drills and one-on-one work.
“Not really getting into rhythm, just wanting to see where he’s at and how he feels after this,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said after practice. “We’ll see how it is and we’ll keep progressing him as we go. But he got more reps than he’s had the last three practices before he came back.”
Kentucky will continue to slowly bring the quarterback along and evaluate after each session.
“We’ll just take it nice and easy,” Gran said. “There’s no hurry. We don’t have to win a game here in the next couple of weeks. That’s a good thing.”
Blue-White Spring Game
When: April 14, 7:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network