There was no stealing E.J. Price’s joy on Saturday night.
After playing in his first game in more than two years — a 35-20 victory over Central Michigan at Kroger Field — the Kentucky left tackle could not stop smiling.
“Today was like Christmas for me,” said Price, who sat out last season per the NCAA transfer rule after sitting out the season before that as a redshirt freshman at Southern Cal. “Being able to get out there today, it’s amazing. It’s amazing.”
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It’s been a year of growth for the 6-foot-6, 305-pound sophomore from Lawrenceville, Ga., who quietly was trudging his way through the transfer season and spring football before a series of ill-timed tweets and an angry early exit from a practice threatened to take it all away.
“Everything’s kind of surreal right now,” said Price on Saturday after splitting time with redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins at the left tackle spot.
Price and Watkins were thrown into the mix faster than expected after starter Landon Young injured his left knee during a late preseason practice and was lost for the season.
But they performed well, Mark Stoops said Monday.
“Their effort was good,” the head coach said. “Their assignments were pretty spot on. Couple here or there, but they played winning football. We just got to get some technique things cleaned up with them as we face better players.”
They will face many of those Saturday when Kentucky opens Southeastern Conference play against a Florida defense that held run-centric Charleston Southern to 225 total yards, including just 3 yards passing.
The Gators recorded eight tackles for loss and three sacks in their opener last week and they have talent and skill back on the defensive line.
“We’ve got to get some things cleaned up for them as competition level steps up, and playing the defensive line from Florida this week, they’ve really got to clean up some technique issues,” Stoops said of the new left tackles. “They were really sharp on their assignments and worked extremely hard.”
Kentucky’s offensive line showed plenty of promise in blocking for the run, allowing the Cats to get two 100-yard rushers in a game (Benny Snell and A.J. Rose) for the first time since 2016 against Missouri. The 299 total rushing yards on Saturday was UK’s most in an opener since 1993.
That might not have happened a year ago as UK struggled early in the run game with some communication problems on the offensive line, Stoops said on his weekly radio show Monday night. “This year was much cleaner in that way,” he said. “So we’re still further ahead even with the young left tackles.”
The head coach is hopeful that as those left tackles gain more experience, the Cats’ pass protection will grow, too.
“There’s probably four or five plays if we just have a fraction longer for the quarterback, we’re going to get the ball down the field,” Stoops said. “Those are the things that we have to do. We were very close this past week.”
Kentucky likely won’t have a player sitting up straighter in meetings and more eager to grow than Price, who on Saturday said he was “excited, humbled, just grateful to be here,” thanking Stoops and offensive line coach John Schlarman for helping him get through a rough patch this spring.
“Just a little bit of bump in the road,” Price said. “Sometimes I didn’t represent myself the best way possible. I was misunderstood. … I was going through a lot. … I’m human. I’m just so excited this staff has stuck behind me. I’m happy to be here at UK.”
That bump in the road might have turned into a detour toward greater things. Price has grown a lot since he arrived at UK, Stoops said on Monday.
“He’s just doing a very good job,” Stoops said. “It’s hard for those guys. People go through things, and he’s gone through a lot. He’s come through it.
“You take away somebody’s hope and you take away everything. So, I think getting on the field and having some positive things happen to him, he’s been good.”