Drake Jackson has been in their position before.
So Kentucky’s center, who played in his first collegiate games a year ago, has tried to do what he can to help left tackles Naasir Watkins and E.J. Price get ready.
“You’re going to be nervous going in there, but after a few series, it’s just about playing football again,” Jackson said he told the two players, who probably will be splitting reps against Central Michigan on Saturday.
This is not the scenario Kentucky envisioned for the season opener against the Chippewas. The Cats had seemed settled at their starting offensive line spots with five guys who had played their positions previously and seemed ready for breakout seasons.
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Then on Friday at practice, projected starting left tackle Landon Young took a weird step in a non-contact drill and was lost for the season. It’s the second time in as many seasons that the Cats lost their starting left tackle to a knee injury just before the opener.
“We hate it for Landon,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said Tuesday after practice. “It’s awful he sustains an injury in a non-contact drill. Any drill, but a non-contact drill that ends your season is not fun. He’s handled it like you would think Landon Young would handle it: Like a champ.”
The Cats’ coaches and players are expecting the new left tackles to handle it in a similar fashion.
“Great opportunity for both of them,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Price and Watkins. “They’re going to have to compete each and every day, each and every week. I think they’re both going to do a heck of a job. I think they’re both going to get a lot of reps. They need to be ready to go.”
Left tackle will be a position by committee because Gran said he’s not sure if either player is ready for a full 80-play load at such an important spot protecting new quarterback Terry Wilson’s blind spot.
“You’d love for both of them to be able to get some reps there,” Gran said. “No. 1 just for the experience, right? And then to see who maybe takes it over.”
While fans may not know much about either Price, a transfer from Southern Cal, or Watkins, who redshirted a season ago, those who have seen them in action are confident they’ll figure it out.
Jackson was on the high school all-star circuit with Price and called the 6-foot-6, 305-pound sophomore the “most talented offensive lineman I’ve ever seen. … He’s just so naturally talented.”
Price has gotten a majority of the snaps with the first team since Young went down with the knee injury, Schlarman said.
The Lawrenceville, Ga., product moves opponents effortlessly in the run game, his position coach said.
“He’s very physical with his hands and his punch,” Schlarman continued. “I’ve really been impressed with how fast he’s starting to pick up on the offense now that he’s gotten a significant number of snaps in there this fall training camp, and I’d expect that to continue to get better and better.”
So often last season, Watkins showed flashes of being able to contribute that UK coaches were literally a play away from pulling the redshirt off of the true freshman at Mississippi State when the Cats lost two tackles to injuries.
Ultimately, because of how much stronger Watkins is now than a season ago and how much more confident he seems, Gran is glad UK waited.
“He picks up on the offense really quickly,” Schlarman said of Watkins, a 6-foot-5, 318-pound freshman. “I think he’s got to be where he’s consistent during practice, so then you feel better about putting him in the games.”
Watkins is long and lanky and has fast feet, Kentucky’s center said.
And Jackson is confident that both Price and Watkins will grow into the role.
“It’s just about game experience with them,” Jackson said. “I have faith in those two guys that they’re going to get the job done. And we’re going to help them along.”
All four of Central Michigan’s defensive linemen are juniors and seniors with a combined 44 starts among them, led by Mitch Stanitzek’s 25 career starts.
Mike Danna (8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks) and Stanitzek (seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks) led the defensive line last year.
▪ True freshman Darian Kinnard, who has spent much of his time working at the guard spots during preseason camp, will move outside to tackle to help build depth at both spots.
“He’s a freshman that I’m really excited about,” Schlarman said of the 6-foot-5, 357-pounder, who has been praised multiple times by Cats coaches during camp. “I can see him stepping in there and getting snaps for us and helping us this year.”
Central Michigan at Kentucky
When: 3:30 p.m.