UK Football

Kentucky’s offensive linemen becoming their own best critics

Left guard Logan Stenberg and left tackle Landon Young, right, blocked for quarterback Stephen Johnson during Kentucky’s 62-42 victory over New Mexico State this season.
Left guard Logan Stenberg and left tackle Landon Young, right, blocked for quarterback Stephen Johnson during Kentucky’s 62-42 victory over New Mexico State this season.

The shift is so subtle you might never even notice it.

But it’s something Kentucky offensive lineman Nick Haynes has been diligently trying to correct for the past three weeks.

“In my stance, I give away pass or run sometimes,” UK’s left guard confided. “I’ve really been trying to get that fixed.”

Haynes might not have even noticed it himself. But center Jon Toth mentioned it in a meeting a few weeks ago and now Haynes is keenly aware he might be inadvertently showing defenses what UK’s plans are.

A year or two ago, Toth never would have brought it up to his friend and teammate, and Haynes might not have responded so positively.

“People would’ve been upset, would’ve shut it down,” Haynes said of the free-flowing assessments among Kentucky’s offensive linemen.

But something has changed for the Cats linemen, mostly juniors and seniors who have been in the program for several years.

These days, their position room isn’t so much about offensive line coach John Schlarman lecturing them on stances, positioning and footwork. It’s now each player openly comfortably critiquing what his fellow offensive linemen are doing or not doing.

The dialogue wasn’t always as easy as it is now, right tackle Kyle Meadows said.

“For me it was hard at first. I thought I did do it right and then I go back and look on film and it’s like, ‘OK, I see what you’re saying. I understand where you’re coming from,’” Meadows said. “We don’t try to take it too personal now.”

This strategy of breaking down individual film of one another started slowly in the offensive line room with a comment here or an encouraging criticism there.

It’s evolved into a relaxed exchange of ideas among a dozen 300-plus pound players with the singular goal of getting better.

“We get on each other,” right guard Bunchy Stallings said. “If you’re having this issue, you have to go out and work on it. You have to do whatever you need to do because when it comes game time, that doesn’t need to happen. We just try to stay on each other.”

Who better to offer suggestions and constructive criticism than the guy who has been right next to you for three or more years?

“The things we’re doing out here and in there right now are really turning our season around,” Haynes said of the open dialogue in the meeting room.

“It’s good for us. The critiques are always a good thing for all the linemen, the whole open environment of talking and open conversation is good, it’s worked out.”

So much of Kentucky’s ability to move the ball has rested on the UK offensive line. The Cats are seventh in the league in rushing offense, averaging 186.2 yards a game.

In the context of wins and losses, the line’s role becomes even more clear. In Kentucky’s three victories, it is averaging 285 yards a game on the ground (5.6 yards per carry). Nine of UK’s 11 rushing touchdowns have come in those wins.

In the three losses, UK is averaging just 87.3 yards a game rushing and 2.8 yards per carry.

And while Kentucky is tied for last in the league in sacks allowed with 17, only four of those were given up in victories. Twice this season, including the most recent game against Vanderbilt, the Cats didn’t allow a single sack.

“Our o-line has matured,” Coach Mark Stoops said. “We’ve played with a true freshman at left tackle for most of the season, but he’s surrounded by guys that have experience.”

That experience is the reason the linemen are so comfortable working together to make the entire unit better, Schlarman said.

“A lot of times when you’re young, which we’ve been young the last couple years, you’re just worried about your job, much less everybody else’s job,” the offensive line coach said. “You’re just trying to survive in there. Now that guys understand the big picture and not just their job, they can help other guys.”

That group is learning to play at a higher level now, its head coach said.

So much happens in a matter of seconds in the trenches on each play, it’s not just “simply big guys in there going one direction or another,” said Stoops, whose offensive line will get a big test Saturday against Mississippi State, which is among the top 40 nationally in total defense (351.3 yards per game) and rushing defense (136.2 yards a game).

“People don’t realize how hard it is on the offensive line on the run game inside. Things happen so quick against some very talented guys. And that experience is really paying off for those guys.”

The collective critiques are the ultimate form of teamwork for a group that relies almost exclusively on it.

“It helps us out tremendously because we don’t try to focus on our own weaknesses,” Meadows said. “And hearing it from your own teammates, your own players you’re close with every day, it’s like, ‘OK, maybe there is something to that.’ Then you work on it and it becomes really helpful.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Mississippi State at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

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