UK Football

How many offensive linemen can you fit in a revolving door? Kentucky’s going to find out

Logan Stenberg, left, and Landon Young blocked for quarterback Stephen Johnson against New Mexico State.
Logan Stenberg, left, and Landon Young blocked for quarterback Stephen Johnson against New Mexico State.

Kentucky’s offense threw only six passes in the second half of its win over South Carolina.

There wasn’t a single pass attempt in the fourth quarter.

The Cats’ go-ahead drive went 11 plays (all runs) for 65 yards.

After the touchdown, ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer noted just how many backup offensive linemen were in on that scoring run for Benny Snell.

“They had their twos out there, had phenomenal push, were being physical,” Palmer said of Kentucky on the broadcast. “That can be demoralizing to a defense when you run the football with that sort of physicality.”

When Snell scampered in for the 1-yard run, there was only one full-time offensive line starter in the game: senior center Jon Toth. Surrounding him were true freshman Landon Young, redshirt freshman Logan Stenberg and sophomores Bunchy Stallings and George Asafo-Adjei.

Stallings, a second-team guard who will return to his home state this weekend when Kentucky faces No. 1 Alabama, said that was an important drive for the UK offensive line.

“It’s for sure a confidence booster,” Stallings said, “especially when you hear your number called to be the guy to pull around, so you just know you have to buckle down, get tough and get it.”

At the five offensive line positions, Kentucky was able to rotate eight different players in the victory over South Carolina. Some players, such as Kyle Meadows, saw time at both tackle spots. Asafo-Adjei has played at both the guard and tackle spots on the right side this season.

If UK gets starting left tackle Cole Mosier back from an ankle injury, there are nine viable options for offensive line coach John Schlarman to sub in and out without losing much.

The number of offensive linemen that Kentucky has used in the first four games this season is more than he’s ever seen rotated in his career, said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, a 28-year coaching veteran.

“I think John’s handled that (rotation) really well and I think our kids have been able to rest a little bit more,” he said. “I think their bodies will be in better shape when we get to the latter part of the year and I think that’s been really good for us.”

The players felt like their bodies were in better shape when it was time for that all-important fourth quarter when the linemen knew that UK was going run the ball a lot to run the clock to zeroes.

“In the run game, it’s a lot tougher on your body because you’re constantly pounding, constantly going against somebody, constantly going 100 percent,” Stallings explained. “And that rotation really helped out where we knew the situation we were in, we knew we had to run the ball and it just helped.”

Players like Stallings and Stenberg started to gain confidence after playing at Florida for short stretches and began to feel even better after the Cats ran for 300-plus yards in the win over New Mexico State.

“Definitely gives us a little swagger about ourselves,” said Stenberg, who can play at either guard spot. “The o-line is definitely happy coming in on Sunday and watching film. Definitely gives us a little pep in our step.”

Junior running back Boom Williams watched much of the fourth quarter from the sideline having already done his damage of 123 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in the first three quarters.

Seeing the younger offensive linemen guide that drive got Williams excited.

“Those guys did a great job understanding the situation that we needed to close the game out,” he said. Adding later: “We did a good job of manning up up front, manning up running the ball to finish out that game.”

It’s sort of an offensive lineman’s dream, their position coach said.

“As an offensive lineman, you love that,” Schlarman said. “We had one negative run in that sequence, but we were gaining 5, 6, 7 (yards). They weren’t always big plays, but we were gaining positive yards. … On that drive, we were in good rhythm and that helped.”

And in the third quarter, when UK had to get some tough yards to extend drives and stay on the field, Schlarman could see that the breaks in the second quarter helped starters like Nick Haynes and Ramsey Meyers stay fresh, too.

When “they came back in, I thought their play was a lot more intense,” Schlarman said of the juniors. “I thought their play was sharper, looked like they were freshened up a little bit, so I think that helped us.”

Kentucky (2-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) is going to need all of the help it can get against the Crimson Tide on Saturday.

Allowing just 14.8 points a game, Alabama is the No. 2 scoring defense in the league behind Florida.

The Crimson Tide (4-0, 1-0) are especially potent against the run, allowing just one rushing touchdown this season and yielding only 67.5 yards per game, best in the SEC and fifth nationally.

“It will be a challenge,” Gran said. “You’ve got to stay on blocks, you’ve got to run the boards, and you’ve got to sustain. If you don’t sustain, it’s going to be a long road.”

▪  On Thursday, UK center Toth was named a semifinalist for the 2016 Campbell Award that recognizes the nation’s top scholar athlete. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound senior, has played in 40 career games with 39 consecutive starts.

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Kentucky at No. 1 Alabama

7 p.m. (ESPN)

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