Kentucky’s offensive linemen are ready for the question. They’ve heard it. They heard it last season. They heard it in the off-season, and they’ve heard it many times this pre-season. They’ve heard it in interviews, on campus and in the barber shop. Every “big ugly” on the Wildcat roster has endured some variation of this question. The University of Kentucky’s football team is currently blessed with the finest assortment of skill position talent that it has enjoyed in at least half a century. Are you linemen going to do your job well enough to reasonably support the players that surround you this season, or will you morph into the same collection of human turnstiles that have manned the Kentucky trenches for each of our collective lifetimes, ruining a promising season in the process? Okay, so the question is not overly complimentary, and I would not ever actually say this to a Kentucky lineman in person as those guys are enormous, but it is relevant nonetheless based on the tragic history of Kentucky football.
Like hack writers everywhere, I am a fan of analogies. In making use of this wondrous tool, I feel that Kentucky’s offensive line as a unit is personified by Cooper Manning. Bear with me on this for a second. By all accounts, Cooper is a decent and talented guy, but while his father and two younger brothers are famous NFL quarterbacks, Cooper is just some dude in the stands. (In fairness, Cooper was a good athlete as well before medical concerns ended his playing career in high school.) Much like the U.K. offensive line, Cooper has a tremendous amount of talent operating in very close proximity to him, but very little fame that can be directly attributed to his own merit. The analogy falls apart in one regard, however. Cooper’s talent, or lack thereof, cannot derail the remainder of the Manning dynasty. Kentucky’s offense, on the other hand, can be severely hamstrung if the line is not providing holes for its backs, or time in the pocket for its quarterback. One need only go back to last season to see that there is ample cause for concern. Kentucky ranked next to last in the SEC in rushing in 2006 at a paltry 98.6 yards per game. The Cats also finished 10th in red zone offense. Both of these stats indicate that Kentucky’s linemen failed to achieve the requisite push to consistently knock their defensive counterparts off of the line of scrimmage. Kentucky also allowed more sacks than anyone else in the conference with 39. (Arkansas, by comparison, gave up 9.) Unfortunately, this lack of consistent pass blocking seems more like a lifestyle decision than a trend for Kentucky fans as the Cats have seemingly provided a personal highlight tape to every drafted defensive end on the Continent over the last decade.
Despite the rather grim picture painted to this point, there is significant cause for optimism in 2007 and beyond. With probation finally in the rearview, the current version of the Kentucky football squad possesses more offensive line options than it has had in this millennium. There are returning experienced players, highly regarded newcomers and players with legitimate SEC size. To sum up, with any luck, this group could make great strides in 2007, and reach the next plateau of the Manning family analogy. They could become competent, if underwhelming. In other words, they could be Eli. Dare to dream.
*Based on Rich Brooks’ recent update from fall practice.
Garry Williams 6-3, 290 Jr., Louisville, KY (Seneca)
Williams was Kentucky’s most dependable lineman in 2006, starting all season at left tackle. He was named Kentucky’s most outstanding lineman for his work. Suffered an injured wrist in fall camp, but has recently returned to practice and should have his cast removed in time for the opener.
Zipp Duncan 6-5, 285 So., Elizabethtown, KY (Elizabethtown)
Every fall camp, there is a name that the coaches seem to mention at every media session. This camp’s version is Zipp Duncan. Duncan came to Kentucky two years ago as a tight end. Then, after his redshirt season, he spent most of 2006 in relative obscurity as a reserve defensive end. Now, after a spring switch to the offensive side of the line of scrimmage, Duncan has found his spot at left guard, taking out 2006 starter Christian Johnson, at least for the time being.
Eric Scott 6-5, 291 Sr., Woodstock, GA (Etowah)
Scott has moved around even more than Duncan. He has seen game action at UK at tight end, defensive end, center and guard. He now seems to have a strangle hold on the center spot. It will be strange to see someone other than Matt McCutchan snapping the ball for the Cats, but Scott is a major athletic upgrade whose agility should pay dividends in run blocking and in the screen game.
Jason Leger 6-1, 287 Sr., Brodhead, KY (Rockcastle County)
Another transplant from the defensive side of the ball, Leger has rarely been discussed by Cat fans in looking toward the fall, but has impressed to coaches enough to be penciled in as the starting right guard. After spending two years as a defensive tackle, Leger switched to guard last season and played well before injuring his shoulder. He is a smallish guard by SEC standards, but is one of the squad’s strongest players.
Justin Jeffries 6-6, 300 So., Louisville, KY (St. Xavier)
Played a significant amount of offensive tackle as a true freshman in 2006 as well as some emergency d-tackle. Best combination of size and agility among Kentucky’s returning tackles.
James Alexander 6-5, 283 Jr., Atlanta, GA(Douglas)
Showed significant promise as an undersized true freshman in 2005, but has not progressed dramatically since then. Still needs to add strength to somewhat light frame.
Brad Durham 6-5, 310 Fr., Mt. Vernon, KY (Rockcastle County)
First team All State as a senior last season. Is in the mix for playing time.
Phillip Hibbard 6-7, 300 Fr., Keavy, KY (S. Laurel)
Outstanding frame and solid athletic ability. Has been timed at under 5.0 in the forty. May see time this fall.
Billy Joe Murphy 6-7, 280 Fr., Gamaliel, KY (Monroe County)
Another rangy and athletic tackle prospect who will compete with Hibbard and Durham for snaps.
Christian Johnson 6-4, 325 Jr., Ft. Campbell (West Potomac)
Biggest surprise from a negative standpoint in fall camp, as Johnson has been beaten out at this point by Zipp Duncan. Johnson seemed to have nailed down a career starting job with his performance at left guard last season, but he missed action in the spring based on academics, and the coaches have indicated that he has regressed. We will see in September if this was a wake up call, or simply an accurate assessment.
Stuart Hines 6-5, 275 Fr., Bowling Green, KY (Bowling Green)
Coaches have penciled him in as a second string guard at this point. Appears likely to see game action. Ranked as one of the top 25 tackle prospects in the country coming out of high school by Rivals.
Josh Winchell 63, 305 Jr.-JC Southaven, MS (Southaven)
Highly regarded junior college prospect who turned down multiple offers from high level division one teams to sign with Kentucky. Does not appear to be in the rotation at this time.
Jess Beets 6-2, 277 Jr., Dove Canyon, CA (Tesoro)
First-team junior-college All-America by the Junior College Athletic Bureau last year at Saddleback College. Like Winchell, still trying to find his spot in the rotation.
Jake Lanefski 6-4, 255 Fr., Mobile, AL (McGill-Toolen Catholic)
Strong player and great athlete, but needs to add weight to play in the SEC. Will almost certainly redshirt.
Jorge Gonzalez 6-3, 300 So., Tampa, FL (Catholic)
Gonzalez might have battled for the starting center spot last year had he not torn up his knee in the preseason. He is now back, and competing with Eric Scott for the center position.
In retrospect, it seems absurd that Brooks faced such criticism early in his tenure with the Cats when one considers the dire situation he undertook. Upon his arrival in Lexington, his team had less than 10 scholarship offensive lineman. When some of those guys went down with injuries, he was basically left looking for fat guys walking around campus to fill in. When Kentucky takes the field in 10 days, there will be 15 scholarship linemen at Brooks’ disposal. That number includes at least 7 who have seen game action for the Cats. Moreover, in a departure from tradition, almost all of UK’s linemen have the requisite size and strength to compete at the SEC level. Based on the starting group listed above, it appears the coaches are putting a premium on agility over brute strength as earth movers like Christian Johnson, last year’s starting left guard, have missed the initial cut. This may indicate that Kentucky will be asking its lineman to move more, with additional pulling and trapping. This mobility should also serve Kentucky well in the screen game, which has been such a vital part of the offense in recent years. Kentucky’s line also has the advantage this year of starting out with opponents who should not present quite the match up problem that the customary first opponent brings along the defensive front. This will allow the coaches the opportunity to work different combinations to determine who provides the Cats with the best chance of success in 2007.