Drake Jackson just tries to keep his head down.
Both literally as part of his job as the center on Kentucky’s offensive line and in other ways, too.
“People don’t talk enough about Drake,” Mark Stoops said of the 6-foot-2, 303-pound standout from Woodford County. “Drake kind of gets left out. He’s the anchor.”
Right guard Bunchy Stallings has twice been named a Southeastern Conference Offensive Lineman of the Week just four weeks into the season.
Fellow senior George Asafo-Adjei is a captain. Logan Stenberg at left guard has been praised for his size and aggression since he became a regular on UK’s line.
But just 11 starts into his Kentucky career, Jackson is a relative unknown.
Or so Stoops thinks.
This week’s opposing coach, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, can’t miss Jackson when he watches film, especially of Jackson battling Mississippi State nose tackle Jeffrey Simmons, a projected future NFL defensive lineman.
“Jackson, the center, is a really good player, obviously directs their traffic up front, as far as really securing first-level defenders,” Muschamp said, mentioning that guards Stallings and Stenberg are impressive, too. “But the center’s been the guy … that really jumps out to me.”
Jackson is the constant for No. 17 Kentucky, which is 11th in the country and tops in the Southeastern Conference in rushing this season, averaging 269 yards a game with 13 touchdowns.
Kentucky’s linemen do a great job of clearing space for Benny Snell and the other runners, Muschamp said.
It’s not about UK being “overly complicated” in the run game, either. And the defensive-minded coach doesn’t mean that as an insult. Quite the opposite.
“Most of the run game that I go against — the really good teams — they’re not complicated,” Muschamp said. ”They don’t have a bunch of different runs. They do a certain amount of runs extremely well and that’s what you see with Kentucky. They do a great job of securing first level and then letting a really, really outstanding back create opportunities for himself on the second level.”
A lot of that success begins with Jackson, who took over as UK’s starting center during the Mississippi State game a season ago.
With so many veterans on the line — especially the ones who had worked with a high-caliber center like Jon Toth for a couple of seasons — it took a while to get comfortable with the new guy.
“You have to earn their confidence,” Jackson said. “All those guys played with Jon Toth, who had total control of everything. They all looked to him.
“When I stepped in, I had to gain their confidence that I could do the same things. I hope I’ve done a good job of gaining their confidence.”
Then there was the whole earning that confidence while learning on the job part with 300-plus pound SEC defensive linemen coming right at him while he tries to perfectly snap the ball.
So Jackson put his head down — as he’s apt to do — and went to work.
“He’s a gritty, kind of throwback-type player,” offensive line coach John Schlarman described his sophomore center. “He’s tough. It’s important to him. He competes. He’s a very high competitor and he’s very smart, too. He picks up the game really quickly and he studies it.”
Jackson understands the qualities of the player he’s going up against each week. He makes it his business, co-offensive coordinator Darin Hinshaw said.
“Some guys are wide and low; some guys are long and big and he uses his attributes to go against those guys,” Hinshaw said of Jackson. “He’s doing a fantastic job. He went against an NFL nose guard last week and did a fantastic job getting us the snap.”
Jackson would point out that it’s about the unit, about all of the players on the line working together to make the offense go.
The sophomore would say it’s just about film study and learning from each other.
His coaches would agree, but they also pointed out that Jackson has been a huge key to that success.
“He’s tough,” said Stoops, who referred to Jackson as “a scrapper.
“He gets in great position and some of his position on the football, some of his blocks, are the reason we had some big yardage. He does a very good job.”
More than any other position groups on the field, offensive and defensive line spots are about technique, the head coach said.
Jackson isn’t just smart, but also fundamentally sound, which make him stand out even when he just wants to just keep his head down.
“He’s a great technician,” Stoops said. “That’s why he’s able to play the way he does as effectively as he does. He may be slightly undersized compared to some people he plays, but he’s a technician.”
And it helps that Jackson plays with a swagger, much like the junior running back racking up yards behind him.
“He’s passionate and he cares about what he does,” Stoops said of his center. “He plays with that edge, that attitude, that chip on the shoulder everyday to prepare himself. And he has great knowledge for a young kid.”
South Carolina at No. 17 Kentucky
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: SEC Network