Kentucky football coach Rich Brooks spent much of the off-season telling the media that this year's offensive line would be his best at UK. Then, in the team's first fall scrimmage last week, the offensive line laid an egg.
It has taken just two weeks of fall practice for the offensive line to go from a supposed strength to a question mark leading into the Wildcats' Aug. 31 opener at Louisville.
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“It's definitely a concern,” UK offensive coordinator Joker Phillips said.
UK junior right tackle Justin Jeffries said that although the line isn't performing terribly as a whole, one or two missed assignments have made the unit look uneven.
“I don't think the scrimmage was as bad as everybody made it out to be, but it was pretty bad,” Jeffries said. “Somebody would mess up here or there, and that would throw the whole play off. Either way it goes, though, you've still got to get the job done, and we didn't get the job done.”
The line's struggles seem puzzling considering that three starters return from a group that helped pave the way for a school-record 475 points last season. In October, the UK offensive line even held its own against a vaunted Louisiana State defense, creating enough holes for the backs to run for 125 yards while holding the Tigers without a sack for four quarters and three overtimes.
The coaches say most of the problems stem from a lack of aggressiveness, not a lack of talent. Jeffries agrees.
“We're not being as physical as we should be,” Jeffries said. “We're catching blows instead of giving blows. With the offense we're trying to run, you have to come off the ball and pound people in the face, and we're not doing that.”
In fairness to the line, they are going against what is being advertised as the best UK defense in years, and the defensive line contains potential pro prospects in Jeremy Jarmon, Myron Pryor and Corey Peters.
“I think we've got the best defensive line in the SEC,” senior running back Tony Dixon said.
“It's not all about us,” Jeffries said. “We do have a heck of a defense. Half of it is us, and the other half is just the defensive line making plays. But that's no excuse. We've still got to get it done. When the season starts, we can't just say, ‘Well, we were playing a great defense.' ”
Phillips said the Cats should be successful running, but pass protection is another story. Considering that sophomore quarterback Mike Hartline will be making his first start against Louisville, Phillips said it's imperative that the line holds up better. Phillips said Jeffries and left tackle Garry Williams have been fine, but the play at guard has to pick up.
“Going into the scrimmage, we had to make sure Mike Hartline had success,” Phillips said. “And with the pressure he had on him, there was no way he could have success. We've got to protect the quarterback in the passing game first and foremost.”
The coaching staff shook things up a bit this week in practice, inserting sophomore Brad Durham into the lineup at right guard. Stuart Hines, who had been battling Jess Beets at right guard, is out with an ankle injury. Backup center Jake Lanefski, who had been out with a broken right hand, is back taking snaps with his left hand.
Jeffries said he thinks the line can get things straightened out by the time it faces the Cardinals, and ultimately fulfill Brooks' expectations.
“Two weeks is a lot more time than people think,” Jeffries said. “If we find the right mesh of guys, we can still have a really good offensive line. We took what Coach Brooks said to heart. We've got to live up to that hype. We don't want to make Coach look bad.”