UK Football

Burden proving a quick study in new role

It's not as big a deal as it was 15-20 years ago for true freshmen to see the field.

But nowadays, freshmen often have to flip-flop positions, and even change sides of the ball, to get there.

University of Kentucky freshmen Chandler Burden and Matt Smith have been wearing Wildcat blue less than a week and have already done some shuffling.

Both were recruited as offensive linemen, but UK Coach Rich Brooks decided to start them on defense first. The verdict was that Burden could possibly provide instant help at defensive end, while Smith was better suited for the O-line.

“We wanted to take a look at both of them on the defensive side of the ball and see if they would flash out at us and show us something,” Brooks said. “Chandler did, and Matt didn't look like a defensive, explosion-type player.”

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Burden looks like a prime candidate for playing time this season. He won state championships in Ohio's largest classification in the discus and shot put and has drawn raves for his strength.

“He's as strong as any freshman I've been around in a long, long time,” Brooks said.

When asked if he hated losing Burden on offense, offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said, “Not at all, because I want to get the ball back. Chandler Burden's one of those guys that can help you get the ball back. He's an explosive young guy, already the strongest guy on the team. He doesn't always know what's going on, but he's always going full speed and somebody's going to get hit in the mouth while he's out there, too.”

Burden has also been timed below 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

“I feel like I'm pretty fast for how big I am,” Burden said. “I might be a good offensive lineman, but I think I'd use my assets better on the defensive line. I've always been good at getting under people and getting them to stand up.”

But Brooks warned that Burden is far from a finished product, saying he needs to learn how to use his hands, and he has to work on his pass-rush moves.

“The best move he has right now is running down the middle and taking the guy and putting him right back in the quarterback's lap,” Brooks said.

Injuries also played a part in the decision to move Smith. Redshirt freshman Jake Lanefski, who was No. 2 at center behind Jorge Gonzalez, broke his snapping hand in practice on Saturday. Brooks and the staff then approached Smith about moving to center, a position he said he hasn't played since the sixth grade. Smith didn't exactly turn cartwheels at the suggestion and still professes a preference for defense, but he's willing to swallow his pride for the good of the team.

“If I got a chance to go back, I'd go back (to defense),” Smith said. “But it really doesn't bother me that I'm over here now. At first, they kind of brought it on me quick and I was like, ‘Why?' But I understand what they're doing, and I've got to help the team any way I can so now I'm just focusing on the offensive side.”

Kentucky has had past success moving defensive linemen over to offense. Last year's starting center, Eric Scott, was a former defensive end, as was Zipp Duncan, who's going into his second year as a starting guard. The coaches also moved another defensive lineman, sophomore Chris Goode, over to the offensive line. Brooks says Smith could be another success story.

“You move (Smith) over to the other side, and he's one of the better athletes there,” Brooks said. “That's where we've gotten better the last two or three years on the offensive line; we've got more athletic ability at the positions.”

Phillips said Smith still doesn't know exactly what to do at center, but he's shown one early redeeming quality.

“He hasn't, knock on wood, put the ball on the ground,” Phillips said. “That's the most important thing that the center has to do, and some of the other ones have put the ball on the ground. He really doesn't know what he's doing yet, but at least he's executing the center/quarterback exchange.”

Defense gets its due

Phillips gave kudos to the UK defense for its play early in fall camp.

“Our defense is playing really fast, and that's a good thing for us,” Phillips said. “That's one of the things that we're going to see in our league week in and week out.”

Phillips said the defense has given his offense problems with its blitz schemes.

“They're timing up and disguising their blitzes really well, and we've got to do things to change the snap count to try and help ourselves,” he said. “Those guys are running around, flying to the football, and having fun. It's only making us better. We're young and inexperienced, and right now, they're bloodying our nose, no question about that.”

Cobb No. 2 punt returner

Phillips said that freshman Randall Cobb will serve as backup punt returner to Dicky Lyons, Jr. Cobb is already taking snaps at quarterback and receiver.

“We're asking a lot of Dicky on offense, so if he needed a break, we could stick (Cobb) in there and not miss a beat,” Phillips said. “He's a special athlete, and it's another way to get the ball in his hands.”

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader