UK Football

Kentucky line hopes versatility will help it overcome loss of left tackle

UK LG Logan Stenberg and LT Landon Young block for QB Stephen Johnson during the 2nd quarter of the University of Kentucky-New Mexico State football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 17, 2016.
UK LG Logan Stenberg and LT Landon Young block for QB Stephen Johnson during the 2nd quarter of the University of Kentucky-New Mexico State football game at Commonwealth Stadium on Sept. 17, 2016.

As Landon Young sees it, there’s being thrown into the fire and then there’s what he experienced at Florida last season.

“It’s like I was getting dipped in gas and thrown into the fire,” Kentucky’s sophomore offensive tackle described of his experience of going in for an injured starter at left tackle and playing the rest of the way at The Swamp.

Young still looks a little awed that his first-ever collegiate snaps were on the road in the Southeastern Conference.

“It was a little rough at first,” he smiled. “I had to get my wits about me. But I felt like as I sort of got the experience and got to see everything, I sort of calmed down, settled down, got into my spot.”

A year older, wiser and stronger, the former star at Lafayette now feels prepared for life in the SEC. He was prepared to split duties at left tackle again this season with Cole Mosier, but the fifth-year senior’s career ended on Saturday with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

“It’s really rough,” Young described of seeing Mosier lose his final season at UK.

“Having somebody go down on your team, period, is hard, but especially someone who took me under his wing and taught me everything he knows and kept me as a little brother there as we were competing for everything,” he continued. “That’s really hard to see.”

Kentucky will have a hard time moving on without Mosier, who played in 32 games with 13 starts, and has been one of the steadying forces on the offensive line.

“Everybody’s down for him, but now they also know we’ve got to rally,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said of Mosier, a former walk-on turned starter. “Some guys are going to have to pull their weight a little more and step up and do the job.”

It’s been an interesting preseason for an offensive line that was expected to be one of the most consistent positions for Kentucky this season. Seven of its top nine players were returning from a group that blocked for two 1,000-yard rushers.

UK knew it had to replace Jon Toth, a multi-year starter at center, and Ramsey Meyers, who opted to forgo his final season of eligibility after graduation.

Then there’s offensive guard Nick Haynes, a diabetic who is working to put significant weight back on before the opener at Southern Miss on Sept. 2.

“At least we have a few weeks where we can prepare and have some options,” Schlarman said of the loss of Mosier.

Whether intentionally or not, Schlarman has been preparing his line for these worst-case scenarios for several seasons. He’s made sure the Cats have options. Starting when Mosier, Haynes, Kyle Meadows and Meyers were redshirt freshmen, the position coach moved them all over the line.

Several guys could play inside at guard or outside at tackle. Last season, UK had such a deep pool that Schlarman played platoon-style offensive linemen with little drop-off when that second group played.

As of Tuesday, Schlarman said he has six guys returning that are competing for starting spots.

“The thing about those six is you’ve got some guys who can play different spots,” Schlarman said, noting that George Asafo-Adjei can play guard or tackle. Haynes could play at any of the three inside positions as could projected starting center Bunchy Stallings, who was UK’s right guard most of last season.

Haynes even saw time at left tackle as a redshirt freshman when called into service also at The Swamp.

Logan Stenberg will move into left guard, a position he backed up last season, and Young likely will be at left tackle.

Other options at that spot include Asafo-Adjei, Meadows and even true freshman Naasir Watkins, who both offensive coordinator Eddie Gran and Schlarman said remind them of Young a year ago.

“I love where he’s at right now,” Gran said of Watkins, a 6-foot-5, 300-pounder who played tackle and end in high school. “He’s got a chance. He really does.”

But knowing that Young is ready to take over a spot he excelled at toward the end of last season has Kentucky’s coaches sleeping OK despite losing their starting left tackle before the first game.

Without having the numbers in front of him, Schlarman said he believed that Young might have played more snaps last season at left tackle than Mosier did because Mosier missed games with an ankle injury.

How valuable was that experience for Young?

“You can’t put that in words because he’s been in games,” Gran said. “It’s not going to be anything mind-boggling to him. He’ll go out there and that stuff when you’ve got the bullets flying, I think he’ll be a much better player this year. You can already see it right now in practice.”

Knowing that there are capable, versatile players all around him on the line has Young excited, too.

You never know when the next man up’s going to have to happen,” he said. “So when you have people who can play multiple positions, you have people who are a lot more able to fill in the spots that you need.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Scouting the Cats

This is the fifth of nine stories looking at the 2017 Kentucky football team, position by position.

Scouting the offensive line

The main man: It’s hard to say with six players back who have played significant snaps during their Kentucky careers, including fifth-year seniors Kyle Meadows and Nick Haynes along with others like Bunchy Stallings, George Asafo-Adjei, Logan Stenberg and Landon Young. With a few exceptions, many of those players have played in numerous spots on the line, which adds to their ability to shift and adapt despite some preseason setbacks for the group.

The supporting cast: Kentucky’s offensive line generally travels with 10 players for road games and just because there are only six who are proven doesn’t mean coach John Schlarman doesn’t think others will be ready. “Seven, eight, nine and 10 are close, but they’ve still got work to do,” he said of others without being specific. UK has plenty of options for players who will fill those roles, including redshirt freshman Mason Wolfe, who has made big strides this offseason, as well as junior college transfer Tate Leavitt, who can help the Cats at either guard spot as well as Drake Jackson. Coaches also seem high on Naasir Watkins, a true freshman who could break into the two-deep by season’s end.

Outlook: With the recent season-ending injury to starting left tackle Cole Mosier, Kentucky now returns six of its top nine players on that deep offensive line from last season that helped guide the way for two 1,000-yard rushers in Benny Snell and Boom Williams. In all, the Cats return 55 career starts in that group. But the key most likely will be UK staying healthy the rest of the way and Schlarman fitting the right players into the right spots in a rotation. He also will have to go about replacing a quality center in Jon Toth. The chances are looking slimmer for a platoon-style system for this group, but it still has loads of experience back. “You feel like you have options opposed to, ‘Oh, gosh, what am I going to do?’” Schlarman said on Tuesday. “We have good options available to us.”

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