When Rich Brooks first arrived at Kentucky, he barely had enough bodies on the offensive line to fill out a depth chart.
The numbers improved slowly over the years, but usually a good percentage of the players on the second team weren't ready for prime time.
Now, for the first time in his UK tenure, Brooks' squad is legitimately two-deep on the O-line, and offensive head coach Joker Phillips says the line looks a lot better physically than in years past.
"We've got tall, lean guys and not a lot of squatty bodies," Phillips said. "There aren't a lot of bellies on those guys up front. They've worked hard, and now they're starting to become a unit."
Technically only two starters return: center Jorge Gonzalez and left tackle Zipp Duncan, who's moving over after starting 26 consecutive games at guard. But there's plenty of overall experience.
Sophomore Jake Lanefski, currently No. 1 at right guard, started the last four games of the 2008 season. Junior Brad Durham and sophomore Billy Joe Murphy each started three games at tackle. And don't forget about senior guard Christian Johnson, who started 15 games in 2006 and 2007 before redshirting last fall.
That list doesn't even include Justin Jeffries, a two-year starter at right tackle who's sitting out spring ball following shoulder surgery.
"I think there are a lot of good things happening on the O-line," Brooks said. "We've got depth along with a good mix of veterans and talented young players."
The youngster who appears the most ready for a breakout year is sophomore Stuart Hines, who played in 12 games as a backup guard as a redshirt freshman last year. Hines added 15 pounds in the past year to get close to 300 and is listed as the starter at left guard.
"Stuart is very good," Brooks said. "He's very strong and very smart, just a matter of getting a little bit better technique. He's clearly a guy that's going to be a major force for us."
Hines will have to fight off Johnson, who's eager to regain his starting spot after being sidelined by back injuries and academic issues last fall. But first Johnson must get closer to his playing weight of 325.
"With his time off, he ballooned back up on me," Brooks said. "He needs to lose some weight, but he's obviously a very strong guy and has a lot of experience. He's just got to get back to moving quicker and being a little more light on his feet."
"To have a quality guy like Christian as a backup, that's a luxury we haven't had around here in a long time," Phillips said.
A pair of redshirt freshmen to keep an eye on are Trevino Woods, who will back up Duncan this year, and Dave Ulinski, who's pushing Lanefski at right guard. Another redshirt, Sean Stackhouse, is also at right guard after moving from tight end. Ulinksi has missed the last week of practice with an undisclosed illness.
While the numbers are plentiful, the UK offensive line is far from a finished product. The unit excelled in pass protection, allowing just 13 sacks but struggled at times to open holes in the running game.
But both the linemen and the coaching staff are hoping that camaraderie and competition will help shape the UK front line into a solid, cohesive unit.
"The offensive line has to be a team within the team, and that's what they are becoming," Phillips said. "They talk and communicate well, and a lot of them live together. You've got the veterans who've been together for several years, and then guys like Ulinski, Smith, Stackhouse and Trevino (Woods) who all redshirted together."
And unlike years past, if the starters aren't on top of their game, the coaching staff can send in the backup without much of a drop-off.
"That's the thing," Durham said. "You've got to come in and work hard in practice every day or else you'll lose your job. We're all in it together, but everybody's hungry to get on the field, too."
Making their pitches
Former UK wide receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. will throw out the first pitch before Friday's UK baseball game against Georgia at 6:30 p.m. Phillips will toss out the first pitch for Sunday's 1 p.m. game at Cliff Hagan Stadium.