UK Football

Pair of redshirt freshmen vying to be Kentucky's starting center

Neal Brown , UK Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach talked to his quarterbacks  at practice  on Wednesday March 27, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Neal Brown , UK Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach talked to his quarterbacks at practice on Wednesday March 27, 2013 in Lexington, Ky. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

All eyes will be on the quarterbacks in Kentucky's annual spring game, but the guy a few inches in front of him should probably get a few glances as well.

For the first time in three years, UK has to break in a new center all while installing a new offense and trying to figure out which of three quarterbacks will run that new offense.

The center position is crucial, especially in Neal Brown's system.

"We try to take a little bit off our quarterback and get it on our center, especially in our pass protection, cadence, those type of things," the offensive coordinator said. "So they've got to kind of tell everybody else what to do."

That's what will make things more complicated at that spot for whoever earns it. Redshirt freshmen Zach Myers and Jon Toth are making the biggest push at the position.

"With them being young, the game's still moving pretty fast for them — new offense aside — but I feel like they're making strides," said offensive line coach John Schlarman, who said the center has to be vocal and help set the tempo in a tempo-driven offense.

"They're both coming along. Do they ever make progress as fast as a coach wants them to? Probably not, but they're getting better."

Other options include Max Godby, last year's backup (who saw little action behind senior three-year starter Matt Smith) and Zach West, who started all 12 games at left guard last season. But both Godby and West have been sidelined by injuries at various times in the spring.

The coaches are confident that UK will have someone comfortably in place come fall, most likely Myers or Toth.

"Both of those guys are smart enough," Brown said. "We think they're both at a point physically where they can do it, but they've got to go out (and do it)."

Especially early in the season, Brown said, UK will have to do what it can to protect the unseasoned center.

"We can't ask them to go out and go one-on-one against some top draft picks," the offensive coordinator said. "We've got to protect them and help them that way and give them some confidence."

Myers, who has played the position previously, has separated himself, especially in the past three or four practices leading up to Saturday's Blue-White Spring Game at Commonwealth Stadium.

"Zach Myers has really had a good spring," Schlarman said of the 6-foot-3, 289-pounder out of Miamisburg, Ohio, where he was a four-year starter. "He's gotten a lot better from day one to day 13. Now he's got a lot of work still to do."

Myers also had the advantage of shadowing Smith, a film junkie who knew defenses inside and out, last season.

"Matt was my big brother last year," Myers said. "He took good care of me. I just learned a lot from watching him play and how he conducted himself on and off the field."

At Kentucky's Pro Day recently, Smith said Toth and Myers came to him seeking advice about playing that position. He laughed as he recounted the conversation to the media: "I told them, it's not as easy as I made it look."

Toth knows that firsthand as he's learning the art of the snap, etc. He hopes that eventually it comes so naturally that he doesn't even think about it.

"There's a lot that comes with it, but the only way to improve is just to get in there and improve every day," the 6-foot-5 former offensive guard from Indianapolis said.

All of that comes with repetition, though. Coaches seem to like Toth's potential.

"I'm really pleased with Toth, how he's reacted," Brown said. "About a week and a half ago, I thought he kind of hit the wall and had a couple poor practices, but he's bounced back and done well."

And fans (and even offensive coordinators) might fret about having a redshirt freshman in a key leadership role, but Schlarman chooses to see the glass as more than three-fourths full.

"Hopefully, a guy steps up, does a great job and then you've got him around for the next three years," the line coach said. "So maybe there's a positive and a silver lining on that cloud. But we've got a long way to go there."

Blue-White Game

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Commonwealth Stadium

TV: Tape-delay only (7 p.m. Sunday on CWKYT-27.2)

Radio: Live on WLAP-AM 630