Kentucky right guard Larry Warford has been a step ahead of the learning curve for offensive linemen since the day he arrived in Lexington.
While most freshmen O-linemen need a redshirt year to get acclimated to big-time college football, the right guard was thrown into the fire as a rookie, earning Southeastern Conference-All Freshman honors while playing 10 games as a backup.
Then, as a sophomore, when the average lineman is just beginning to get used to the job, Warford started all 13 games and was named second-team All-SEC.
Now, in his third year on campus, Warford could be on the verge of becoming one of the country's best.
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"Larry doesn't have a bigger fan in the country than me," UK offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "I'm so impressed by what he does. I don't ever tell him that, but there's no doubt that he is one of the elite linemen in the country. But he still has a lot of things he has to do with that talent to perform at that level consistently."
Warford did have to overcome one hurdle during his initial summer as a Wildcat: conditioning. He was 357 pounds when he first reported to camp and couldn't finish the required wind sprints. Yet his talent made it hard for the UK staff to keep him off the field.
"You never expect an offensive lineman to play as a true freshman, but athletically he was ready, and he had a huge understanding of our offense, so we were forced to play him," Coach Joker Phillips said.
After an off-season of working out with new strength and conditioning coach Ray 'Rock' Oliver, Warford toned up and trimmed down to 325 for the 2010 season.
"It was ridiculous how bad I was," Warford said of his conditioning. "But Coach Rock got me into shape last summer running gassers and, once I got moving and was able to keep up with the rest of the team, it gave me a lot of confidence."
And Warford began to blossom. He lined up against some of the SEC's best defensive linemen on a weekly basis and more than held his own. Auburn's Nick Fairley, who's projected as a top-five pick in the upcoming draft and had 12 sacks on the year, was held to three tackles and no sacks thanks in large part to Warford.
That's when a lot of folks, including Warford, started to realize how good he could be.
"It was kind of scary, but doing what I did gave me a lot of confidence," Warford said.
Summers said Warford has three things that make him special. The obvious one is his size. He is listed at 6-foot-3, 340 pounds in the spring media guide but said he weighed in at 330 at the start of spring drills. And for a guy that big, he has excellent footwork. Also, he knows how to use his hands.
"He really understands the concept of hand development," Summers said. "And so few offensive lineman understand the value of their hands and how much of a lever that creates for you in terms of power and in terms of quickness. He's really developed that part of his game and, for his size, he's got really good feet, so his body is never in a bad position, where he's twisted around or out of shape. He's usually in front and in position and, at that size, he's a hard guy to move out of the way."
Warford is the quiet, gentle-giant type who isn't a vocal leader, but Summers said that part of his game will eventually develop.
"All of our guys have bought into the concept that the only way that you can lead is to take care of your business first, and Larry tries to lead by example," Summers said. "All the players on this team respect Larry because they know how hard he's worked and they know what kind of player he is. As Larry matures as a person, he'll grow as a vocal leader but, until that time comes, I've been very pleased that he takes care of himself and shows everyone else how to practice and how to play."
Now that Warford has built a reputation, he's aware that he'll have high expectations every week.
"It's hard not to think about it," he said. "You do realize everybody's looking at you, and you don't want to mess up, because everybody will know it's you, and you're not supposed to mess up at all. You could lose focus over that, but I try not to."
Summers said the NFL is definitely in Warford's future if he stays on track.
"I think, across the country, there are thousands of guys who are in Larry's position right now," Summers said. "They've shown talent and production and have an opportunity ahead of them because of what they've done so far.
"Larry can make a career out of football. The key is keeping focused on his development and the future. Some lose focus along the way. What he does with his talent and work ethic between now and then is up to him."