The Kentucky offensive line was a big question mark heading into last spring, as the Cats were attempting to replace four starters from a rock-solid unit.
Fast forward one year later and the same group that was trying to get its feet wet together are now looked at as the stabilizing force for an offense that will break in a new quarterback, tailback and No. 1 receiver.
Stuart Hines, a three-year starter, is the grizzled veteran of the group at left guard, and left tackle Chandler Burden, center Matt Smith and right guard Larry Warford started a combined 38 games last fall. The fifth starter, senior Billy Joe Murphy, has nine career starts.
"You like when the strength of your team is your guys up front," UK Coach Joker Phillips said. "I think that sets the tone for the rest of the team."
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"It's always comforting to have players that have game experience and know how you teach and understand what's expected of them and are willing to respond to what's expected," said offensive line coach Mike Summers. "These are guys that have been in battle and have been successful on the field. They know what it takes."
Smith said the offensive line is up to the task of being the front men for the offense.
"We know we have to be the backbone of the offense with all the new guys coming in," he said. "We're trying to lead by example as the guys inside doing the grunt work. All the coaches tell us that every great team that they've been a part of has a great offensive line."
Not only were the Cats breaking in new players up front last season, they were also working with a new coach in Summers, who has been pleased with the progress his unit has made.
"When we first got here, we set a goal for ourselves to try and become the example for the team in terms of work ethic, toughness and commitment to the team," he said. "And we still have a ways to go, but we've made a lot of strides. I've been proud of all the guys in the room in that they decided to believe what they were told by the coaching staff and they bought in to what we were telling them. More than anything, they have a better understanding of me right now."
With the starters pretty much set, one of the keys this spring is to develop depth for this season and beyond. The Cats are in good shape with their No. 6 guy, senior Jake Lanefski, who has played all three line positions and will swing between tackle and guard this fall. But with Burden, Hines, Murphy and Lanefski all in the final year of eligibility, the Cats need to start looking ahead.
Burden's recovery from off-season shoulder surgery has him out all spring, so Summers has gotten a nice long look at redshirt freshman Teven Eatmon-Nored, who's backing up Lanefski at left tackle.
Summers said he's been impressed with sophomore guard Kevin Mitchell, who made strides in reshaping his body in the off-season. Junior Trevino Woods is manning one of the backup tackle spots, and Summers is hoping for a healthy year out of junior Dave Ulinski, whose progress was slowed by a concussion last season.
Smith said he and the rest of the veterans on the line will take an active role in trying to develop the youngsters, much in the same way that guys like Jorge Gonzalez, Zipp Duncan and Justin Jeffries did with them. He's taken sophomore Sam Simpson, slated to be his backup at center, under his wing.
And Smith has a vested interest in pushing the younger guys. He's scheduled to be the only returning starter in 2012.
"I'm taking it personal that I have to get those guys behind us ready to play so we won't be left out in the cold next year," Smith said. "I've been working with them showing them things and tricks I've learned from the guys before me trying to help them out."
Summers said the fact that his guys are so willing to teach makes him feel good about their ability to lead.
"You can only do that when you have confidence in who you are and how you have developed," he said. "I think these guys understand the offense, so now they can say, 'I can help the guys coming up behind me with the issues I had when I didn't know the offense.' They're all willing to help our football team by taking younger guys aside and teaching them techniques. Those are the type of guys you want out in front of your football team."