A week before the start of the 2018 football season, Kentucky lost one of its most talented and experienced offensive lineman. To fill the void left by Landon Young at left tackle, the Cats will turn to Naasir Watkins and E.J. Price.
“What a great opportunity for both of them,” said offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. “They’re going to have to compete each and everyday, each and every week. I think they’re both going to do a heck of a job. They’re both going to get a lot of reps, so they need to be ready to go.”
Gran and John Schlarman are still unsure who will get the start, but both will split time. Neither are quite prepared to take an 80-snap workload.
Watkins, a redshirt freshman from Good Counsel in Maryland, almost played as a true freshman when two offensive tackles were injured last year at Miss. State.
“You watched him in his one-on-ones and athletically you watched him and just go WHOA. This man’s got a chance,” said Gran. “We were so close to pulling that thing (redshirt) a couple of times. I’m glad we didn’t have to because you hate to do that to a young man. But what you’ve seen now, he’s stronger. He’s so much stronger and confident. That’s the two biggest things you see.”
Price was an Under Armour All-American before he initially signed with USC. He transferred to UK after one year and is now eligible to play in his first college football game.
“He’s athletic and he’s very physical at the point of attack,” said offensive line coach John Schlarman. “When you have those two things, you’ve got somebody that can move bodies in the run game and stay in front of a defensive end in pass protection.”
Center Drake Jackson took the praise for Price’s game one step further.
“E.J. is one of the most talented offensive linemen I’ve seen. I met him in high school doing some of the camp circuits all over the place. He’s just so naturally talented. Naasir is long, lanky, quick. It’s just about game experience with them, and that’s what we’re going to miss with Landon is that game experience. But I have faith in those two guys to get the job done and we’re going to help them along.”
Jackson was in their shoes around this time last year as a high school all-american who had never played a down of college football. He shared this advice to each of them shortly after Landon was lost for the year:
“When you go out there, it’s not gonna be what you thought it was. You’re just going to be out there playing football. It’s going to be feel like you’re just out here (at practice). You’re not even going to here the crowd. You’re not going to hear anything. Sure, you’re going to be nervous going in there, but after one or two series, it’s just playing football again, so go out there and embrace it.”
There’s plenty of confidence that Price and Watkins can get the job done at left tackle. If not, there’s another high school all-american waiting for his opportunity to shine.
“Darian Kinnard’s had a great fall camp. He’s a freshman that I’m really excited about. I can see him stepping in there, getting some snaps for us and helping us this year,” said Schlarman.