UK Football

Mix and mash: Kentucky’s O-line an ‘or’ line for now

Matt Panton wins punting job -- for now

Kentucky special teams coach Dean Hood talks about the punting competition between newcomer Matt Panton and holdover Grant McKinniss.
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Kentucky special teams coach Dean Hood talks about the punting competition between newcomer Matt Panton and holdover Grant McKinniss.

Ignore the “OR.”

The conjunction situated next to the names of multiple offensive linemen on Kentucky’s recently released depth chart is not a warning of worry or indecision, Cats coaches said.

It’s just a sign that John Schlarman is busy working his annual Rubik’s Cube that is the UK offensive line.

“You’ve got to figure out what guys’ strengths and weaknesses are and then figure out how you can offset that maybe with the guy next to him, that maybe his strength is whatever that guy next to him’s weakness is,” Schlarman explained Tuesday as Kentucky prepares to face Southern Miss.

Many pieces of that constantly rotating offensive line from last season — that saw players go in and out platoon-style in each game with the exception of then-center Jon Toth — are still in place.

UK has to replace graduated players such as Toth and Ramsey Meyers from that rotation, and the Cats are now without last season’s starting left tackle in Cole Mosier, recently lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

There still are a lot of moving parts and players who will contribute this season; therein lies the “OR” conjunction that sits between players such as senior Kyle Meadows and Landon Young at left tackle. Meadows started all of last season on the right side, but could make the move. Young was the backup at left tackle last season, starting in three games.

At right tackle, there’s junior George Asafo-Adjei, whom coaches have said is playing the best football of his career, listed with Meadows.

“Georgehas been so good,” head coach Mark Stoops said. “George has played extremely good football for us. He’s been the most consistent he’s been.”

Or there’s center, where Bunchy Stallings, last season’s frequent starter at right guard, is listed as an “OR” with Nick Haynes, who was starting left guard for the Cats in 2016. Both are listed as an “OR” at that right guard spot, too.

“They’re always interchangeable there,” Stoops explained. “We feel very fluid at that situation.”

The only position without an “OR” and seems to be locked is left guard by All-Southeastern Conference freshman Logan Stenberg.

“We have six or seven guys who could start a game for us,” Schlarman said. “Guys don’t get their feelings hurt; they pull for the guys who are in there. They know they’re going to get just as many snaps if not more. …

“We’ll have some good rotations going, keep some fresh bodies on the field and I think that will benefit all of us.”

You try to mix them up and you try to put guys who are better at communicating next to guys who aren’t better at communicating. You look for strengths and weaknesses as a unit, not as individuals all the time.

John Schlarman, UK offensive line coach

That is 100 percent true, Stallings said, suggesting it would be silly to question Kentucky’s mad professor of an offensive line coach.

The junior lineman, who is headed back home to Mississippi this weekend, learned not to try to make sense of it when as the backup center Schlarman regularly asked him to play right guard in camp.

That’s how Stallings ended up playing there for much of 2016.

“By me getting reps I got in practice, that helped a lot in my transition to the game,” Stallings said.

So expect there to be more Stallings situations this season, including players such as true freshman tackle Naasir Watkins, whom coaches say is as far along this season as Young was at this time a season ago.

There are others such as Luke Fortner, who missed part of camp with an illness but is back in the rotation, as well as players like Mason Wolfe, Drake Jackson (listed as backup center) and guard Tate Leavitt.

In his fifth year coaching football at the University of Kentucky, Mark Stoops has ample opportunity to end negative streaks and make positive history.

It’s all part of a bigger plan that may need to come into play as early as Saturday when UK plays a Southern Miss team that likely will run platoons of defensive linemen on the field.

“You try to mix them up and you try to put guys who are better at communicating next to guys who aren’t better at communicating,” Schlarman said. “You look for strengths and weaknesses as a unit, not as individuals all the time. What could this guy bring to the table playing on the right side next to this guy?”

It might be a different mix altogether depending on the situation. In a two-minute drill, the best pass protection players will be in there. In a four-minute drill where UK (literally) wants to run out the clock, the best run blockers will be on the line.

Schlarman said: “All those things come into play and that’s what we’re figuring out with the different combinations we’re doing right now.”

Saturday

Kentucky at Southern Mississippi

When: 4 p.m. EDT

TV: CBS Sports Network

Where to find CBS Sports Network:

▪ Spectrum Cable: Channels 531 (standard definition) and 968 (high definition)

▪ DISH Network: Channel 158

▪ DirecTV: Channel 221

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