We may have saved the best for last in our preview series (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends) as now it’s time to visit the line of scrimmage to check out what Kentucky has along the offensive line. On paper, it seems like UK is in a really good spot as four starters return from last season and the only one becoming full-time has played a ton since his true freshman season. With John Schlarman returns for his sixth season and he is only the second position coach to still be in Lexington since the first year under Mark Stoops in 2013. Entering this fall he may have his most talented group yet.
Kentucky’s projected starting offensive line entering the season (from left to right) of Landon Young, Logan Stenberg, Drake Jackson, Bunchy Stallings, and George Asafo-Adjei have combined for 55 career starts. Each one is at least entering their third year in the program as the starting group is as seasoned as any other unit on the football team. After going with a platoon system in 2016, Kentucky trimmed up the rotation in 2017 after a slow start. Asafo-Adjei and Young were part of a three-man rotation at tackle while Stallings and Stenberg received nearly every snap with the ones at guard. The snapping issues were a thorn in the side for UK and it was one of the many reasons the Wildcats were unable to knock off Florida. Drake Jackson stepped up in the middle of the season and from there the ground game took off. It’s no surprise that UK averaged nearly 16 more yards per game on the ground with Jackson as the anchor.
Kentucky should feel really comfortable with its starters along the line. Stallings and Stenberg are one of the top guard combos in the FBS and both have a legit shot at All-SEC honors. Asafo-Adjei and Young were each big recruiting wins for the UK staff and they’ve proven to be reliable players as they are the only two offensive linemen that have played as true freshmen in the Stoops era. Jackson was a steadying force for the offensive line in the second half of last season as this group seems ready for a huge season.
Offensive Line Room
After the starters, however, there are some legit questions about UK’s depth on the line. Kentucky enters the season with 14 scholarship players listed as offensive linemen and half of those are either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Recent trends tell us all true freshman are headed for redshirt years so that means you can take Kentucky’s four signees from the class of 2018 off of the table for this season.
Looking at players returning, only Luke Fortner and Mason Wolfe have seen actual playing time in a college football game. That’s it. Wolfe should be Jackson’s primary backup at center while Fortner will be somewhere in the mix as a backup guard. On the edge, Kentucky’s reserve tackles appear to be solidified with redshirt freshman Naasir Watkins and USC transfer E.J. Price. Price was a top 100 prospect out of high school and has a ton of talent. Watkins, meanwhile, had the coaching staff gushing last fall camp and it was a win for them being able to redshirt him. With these two, UK should be comfortable with their chances of finding a much needed third tackle. At guard, UK is going to be really young behind Stenberg and Stallings. Fortner will be joined by redshirt freshmen Austin Dotson and Sebastien Dolcine. A year after having no answer at backup guard, it will be essential for UK to find at least one solution for a potential injury coming out of fall camp.
After high expectations going into 2017, UK got off to a very slow start after starting left tackle Cole Mosier was lost for the season with a torn ACL in training camp and starting left guard Nick Haynes was knocked out of the lineup due to weight loss caused by diabetes. It took UK nearly half the season to find their mojo before finishing the year very strong. Drake Jackson became the long term answer at center and a trimmed rotation allowed the Wildcats to find their form in 2017. Heading into this fall, the starting five is as talented entering the season as any unit I can remember in the last decade or so.
However, things get a little worrisome when you start to look at the depth chart. Both of UK’s projected backups at tackle have yet to play a snap at the FBS level, there’s a huge question who will emerge at guard, and we’re not sure how well Mason Wolfe has made the transition to center after playing both guard and tackle earlier in his career. Add in the news that coach John Schlarman is dealing with a personal health concern and there are a lot of variables UK may have to manage this season.
Both Mark Stoops and Eddie Gran have stated they feel very confident in their offensive line and believe they will be a strength of the offense. The Wildcats have good size, are seasoned, and have a nice blend of sophomores, juniors, and seniors. This group could be the best on the offense but the threat of an injury is real. Kentucky must find ways to get the twos reps early on so they’ll have an answer if an unexpected departure emerges or if Schlarman needs to step away.