His phone ring is not set to “Rocky Top.”
Darian Kinnard has never liked the color orange much.
And even though he spent most of his formative years living just outside of Knoxville, UK’s true freshman offensive tackle was never a Tennessee football fan.
“Not a true orange fan,” the 6-foot-5, 357-pound lineman with massive hands said as No. 11 Kentucky prepares to play at Tennessee on Saturday. “Not even close.”
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The backup tackle, who was born in Youngstown, Ohio, actually grew up a huge Ohio State fan. Kinnard was such a Buckeyes fan that he and his mother moved up to the Cleveland area hoping to get noticed by his favorite team while playing for St. Ignatius.
And though he was a four-star player according to several recruiting services, that Ohio State offer never came to fruition. He had offers from places like Penn State, UCLA and Tennessee, but a visit to Kentucky and he found his home.
Now Kinnard gets to visit his former home coming off what coaches said was the best game of his true freshman season in the Cats’ loss to Georgia last week.
“He made a step against a really good defense this week,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Kinnard, who subbed in regularly at left tackle. “He played well. It’s great to see.”
The thing offensive line coach John Schlarman sees on tape is how quickly Kinnard picks things up despite being a first-year offensive lineman.
“If he makes a mistake, usually he corrects it after the first time he makes it,” Schlarman said. “He can make in-game adjustments.
“I think he’s got a very good football IQ. He’s learning what the speed of the game is all about like every true freshman does. He’s got the size, he’s got the athleticism. The mental side of it is coming along, there’s just a lot of positives.”
When asked about what made it his best game at Kentucky so far, Kinnard said it was because, “I knew what I was doing and I felt comfortable.
“I didn’t feel that pressure to do well. I just went out there, played my game and played relaxed.”
The true freshman is one of several backup offensive linemen who are making moves this season, challenging the first-teamers for snaps.
Players such as Luke Fortner, Mason Wolfe and Naasir Watkins, who is working a lot at right tackle now behind George Asafo-Adjei, are rounding into more complete players.
“I see that gap closing, and not because the first group’s not doing well, but the second group’s really picking up,” Schlarman said.
It’s starting to remind Kentucky’s coaches of the setup in 2016 when UK was able to platoon its offensive line to stay fresh, especially against tough Southeastern Conference competition.
“They’re making a step kind of like we did a couple years ago when we were playing a lot of guys and it really helped us later down the road,” Gran said.
There’s not a lot of drop-off right now between the first group and the second group, which includes Kinnard.
“That’s a good thing, gives us some depth,” Schlarman said. “I feel like it helps us in the second half sometimes when the defense is a little worn down because they’ve gone against a couple different guys. I think it’s a positive.”
More competition also could mean fewer of the inconsistencies that Mark Stoops said he saw from that group, especially in the loss to Georgia.
“They’ve had some good moments,” the Cats’ head coach said of the offensive line. “They’ve been inconsistent this past week. There’s a couple of critical mistakes and again, I think, as I mentioned earlier, a fraction more protection here or there and we have an opportunity for some big plays.”
No. 11 Kentucky at Tennessee
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: SEC Network