UK Football

After baptism by fire, Kentucky’s Drake Jackson growing into role at center

Kentucky center Drake Jackson, right, provided protection for quarterback Stephen Johnson during a game against Mississippi State last week. Mississippi State won 45-7.
Kentucky center Drake Jackson, right, provided protection for quarterback Stephen Johnson during a game against Mississippi State last week. Mississippi State won 45-7. aslitz@herald-leader.com

A fellow Kentucky offensive lineman described his first time playing on the road in the Southeastern Conference as “getting dipped in gas and thrown into the fire.”

Thanks to those graphic details, Drake Jackson sort of knew what to expect when he made his first start on the road against Mississippi State last weekend.

Unlike Landon Young, whose first snaps ever were at Florida a year ago, Jackson had some time to ease into his new role as Kentucky’s center.

Between the Eastern Michigan game — when he earned his first playing time — and the Missouri game, Jackson had 115 snaps on video to study before heading to Starkville.

There was plenty from which to learn.

“Game film is really different than practice film,” the former Woodford County star said after the Missouri game that saw him go head-to-head with standout nose tackle Terry Beckner. “That’s been really helpful.”

But nothing prepares a player for his first snaps on the road in the SEC, especially when the first start involves cowbells.

Now Jackson has 59 new snaps on film to dissect, and the 6-foot-2, 290-pound redshirt freshman is quickly growing into his role, coaches said.

“Drake did a good job,” Coach Mark Stoops said on his Monday night radio show. “He was solid. He did give up some pressure, but he was going against a good nose guard and a very, very good interior defensive line. He gave up a few pressures, but it was his first start and he did some good things.”

After Tuesday’s practice, Kentucky offensive coordinator Eddie Gran talks about criticism from Saturday’s 45-7 loss at Mississippi State.

Offensive coordinator Eddie Gran noted there were three specific plays where Jackson “kind of got pushed back” going up against five-star nose tackle Jeffery Simmons of Mississippi State.

But the good news is those things are technique-based and fixable, Gran said. “I tell you, he competes. He knows what to do for the most part.”

It reminds Gran of Young, a former Lafayette standout who receives regular playing time at tackle as a sophomore.

“He’s kind of in the same shoes as Landon was last year,” Gran said.

Jackson’s getting a lot of help from veterans like Nick Haynes, who has played guard for most of his Kentucky career but has been battling through weight-loss issues. Haynes is listed as the co-starter at center on Saturday versus Tennessee.

Also chipping in is Bunchy Stallings, who has moved back to right guard after struggling with some snap issues this season.

Jackson has brought some consistency to the line, which has used new combinations almost every week because of injuries, Stoops said.

“He gives us depth. He gives another number,” Stoops said of Jackson. “Fundamentally he’s doing a very good job.”

Jackson doesn’t necessarily have the experience and he’s still building up the strength, but those things will come and he’s holding his own.

“The great thing about Drake is he’s always been a fundamental football player,” Stoops said. “He’s getting experience now. He’s been consistent in his snaps, but he’s a fundamental guy. Really, that’s what you need on the offensive line. Obviously, size and strength and athletic ability is very important, but also it’s a technique game there.”

Those offensive-line veterans are working to help get Jackson up to speed, in hopes of building continuity and improving the Cats’ declining rushing statistics.

A season ago, behind senior center Jon Toth, Kentucky was the conference’s third-best rushing team, averaging 234.2 yards per game and 5.44 yards per carry.

That number has fallen to 135 yards per game and 3.66 yards per carry in 2017. On Saturday, UK will face a Tennessee team that is ranked No. 122 nationally and No. 13 in the league in rushing defense.

The Volunteers are giving up 247 yards per game against opponents who are running it almost 50 times a game. That will mean a little more experience for Jackson, who is getting some help from his fellow linemen.

“They’re making some calls and helping him out,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said. “Seeing things before they happen. That’s all part of it.

“As a veteran, you’ve got to step up and do your job, and some of those guys have been through the fires before, so maybe they see some things quicker and a little bit better than he does right now.”

Jennifer Smith: 859-231-3241, @jenheraldleader

Saturday

Tennessee at Kentucky

7:30 p.m. (SEC)

Records: Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC); Tennessee (3-4, 0-4 SEC)

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