Part four in an eight part series previewing the 2006 Kentucky Wildcats.
Wildcats’ starting unit on September 3rd?
As Summer begins its slow fade into Fall, renewed optimism in Kentucky football is as predictable as the ultimate arrival of cooler temperatures. Memories of past seasons’ failures have faded, tales of Spring improvements, summer weight room feats, and exciting new players whose collegiate records are unblemished rejuvenate call in shows and message boards. Players provide sound bites describing new unity and complete devotion to the cause of Kentucky football. The elusive “corner” seems again ripe for the turning. This yearly right of Fall occurs not just at Kentucky, but at every downtrodden football school in the country. With this in mind, is the positive talk from Kentucky’s camp this year just that? Have we not heard the same words from this regime and its predecessors time and again? Where is the tangible proof that Kentucky will actually improve on the football field this fall, and not just in the hyperbole of its ever-faithful fanbase? The biggest answer lies not with speedy receivers, experienced quarterbacks or highly-touted high schoolers, but with an experienced and deep offensive line.
Going into the Louisville game last season, Kentucky had two offensive linemen with significant starting experience. (Hayden Lane and Matt McCutchan had started the previous season.) Other than those two, the Cats started Michael Aitcheson, Trai Williams and Fatu Turituri, who had a combined two starts to their credit. To complicate matters, the Cats had only freshmen to turn to in the inevitable case of injury to a starter. All in all, Kentucky’s offensive line entered the 2005 season with 24 combined starts for its entire roster of offensive linemen. Now, after the initial 2005 starting group, as well as several young players, struggled through the 2005 season, Kentucky looks to reap the rewards in 2006. As of this writing, Kentucky boasts a combined 90 starts among its roster of offensive linemen and 165 total games played. This alone is enough to provide some legitimacy to the 2006 hopes.
Aaron Miller 6-5, 300 So., Grayson, KY (East Carter)
Despite the hype surrounding UK’s recruiting class, the biggest addition to UK’s 2006 team may well be Aaron Miller. Miller came out of nowhere in 2004 to start 10 games as a true freshman tackle. An amazing feat for anyone, but particularly remarkable for a lightly recruited, undersized kid out of Eastern Kentucky. Earned Freshman All SEC honors. After sitting out the 2005 season for personal reasons, Miller returned for Spring Practice with an added 25 pounds. So long as he manages to get through some academic concerns, will start at tackle against Louisville.
Hayden Lane 6-6, 275 Sr., Lawrenceville, Ga. (Brockwood)
Every year, some player on the roster grabs the distinction of being the whipping boy of the fanbase. (Let’s call it the Marvin Love Award.) For the last two years, that honor has gone to Hayden Lane. The message board and call in circuit has determined it a forgone conclusion that Lane will be replaced by Garry Williams, James Alexander or one of the redshirt freshmen this year, but Brooks seems to love Lane’s intelligence (First Team Academic All American) and durability (23 straight starts leads the team). The guess here is that when the season kicks off at the Pizza Palace, the much-maligned Lane will dig in for his 24th straight start.
Garry Williams 6-3, 283 So., Louisville, KY (Seneca)
Played in 8 games in 2005 as a true freshman, and started the last three following the injury of Fatu Turituri. Held his own despite not being in great playing shape. One of a few returning players actually asked to lose weight going into 2006. Can play either tackle or guard.
James Alexander 6-5, 281 So., Atlanta, GA (Douglas)
Came in as a true freshman in 2005 weighing only 250 pounds. Despite lean build, quick feet and aggressive play allowed Alexander to play in all eleven games last season. Had one start verses Auburn. Has gained significant weight, but could benefit from a redshirt if the tackle position can be handled by the other candidates.
Zack Hennis 6-8, 310 RS Fr., Plain City, OH (Alder)
Hennis is an imposing player with a great frame and good high school pedigree (3 time all state in Ohio) who simply was not in good enough shape to help the Cats last year. Will add depth at tackle spot this year, and could blossom into a starter by 2007.
Sefo Mailau Blaylock 6-4, 330 RS Fr Salt Lake City, UT (East)
A mammoth tackle who, like Hennis, carried a bit too much “bad weight” in 2005. Made strides in Spring. Aggressive and animated player who could ultimately be moved to defensive tackle if he does not get into the rotation on offense.
Michael Aitcheson 6-3, 300 Sr., Miami, FL (Killian)
Veteran who has played in 28 games as a wildcat with 12 starts, including all 11 in 2005. Does not blow you away with athleticism, but solid technician at this point in his career. Will likely battle fellow returning starter Trai Williams for the right guard spot.
Fatu Turituri 6-3, 290 Sr., American Samoa (L.A. Harbor College)
Started 7 games at tackle in 2005 before suffering season-ending knee injury. Would likely have started at guard in 2005 if not for the departure of Aaron Miller. Now looks to return to guard spot, which better suits his ability. Called team’s best offensive lineman during Fall drills last year. Listed as the backup left guard to Christian Johnson on the preseason depth chart, but will push for a starting role somewhere if healthy.
Christian Johnson 6-4, 325 So., Ft. Campbell, KY (Hargrave Military)
One of the strongest players on the team with 500 plus pound bench press. No starts in 2005, but played in 10 games and earned reputation as a strong drive blocker, which may play to his benefit with 2006 emphasis on running the football. Came out of Spring as the first team left guard.
Trai Williams 6-4, 286 Sr., Franklin, KY (Franklin Simpson)
Former walkon who has played in 24 games and started all 11 in 2005. Not great size, but outstanding strength. Will not back down from challenge to his starting guard position.
Micah Jones 6-4, 330 So. Mayfield, KY (Mayfield)
Expected to make immediate impact as highly regarded true freshman in 2004. Played in 9 games with 1 start, but struggled with jump from small high school to major stage. Redshirted in 2005 with hamstring injury. Sat out Spring while trying to get academic house in order. Primary problems seem to be not talent, but desire and maturity.
Matt McCutchan 6-3, 310 Sr., Lebanon, Ohio (Lebanon)
Granted rare 6th season of eligibility by NCAA. 21 career starts as a center at UK, including all 11 last year. Extremely tough player who battled through an assortment of injuries last season, but refused to come out of starting lineup. Missed Spring due to rehabbing injuries, but should be available in August.
Travis Slaydon 6-3, 290 Sr., Harlington, TX (South)
Career backup who has played in four games. Currently listed as the backup to McCutchan.
Casey Shumate 6-3, 273 Jr., Louisville, KY (Male)
Played in 3 games as a backup center in 2004, but saw no action in 2005.
Jorge Gonzalez 6-3, 300 RSFr Tampa, FL (Catholic)
Possesses size to be the future at center behind McCutchan, but has disappointed somewhat in not grabbing the backup role. Ideally, would get some snaps as a backup this season in hopes of starting in 2007.
*note* Trai Williams was also tried at center in the Spring with mixed results.
Newcomer: Justin Jeffries, 6-5, 300 Fr., Louisville, KY (St. X)
In most years, the heavily recruited Jeffries would be asked to step right into the fray for the Cats. Fortunately, due to the current depth on the offensive line, Jeffries will redshirt barring a huge rash of injuries. (Which we know from experience can happen.)
There can be no question that the 2006 Kentucky Wildcats will field the deepest, most experienced offensive line in recent memory. Kentucky boasts four tackles and five guards who have seen significant game action. This should make for several intriguing camp battles featuring battle tested upper classmen verses inexperienced players who may possess more raw ability. The primary concern is depth at the center position, where two backups have played very sparingly. Aside from this question, the other significant worry is simply whether the coaches can figure out who is starting in time for the group to develop some cohesion before the first game. Based in part on this, I look for some of the older guys to win out, and hold on to their starting spots. (Thus the lineup above.)