John Schlarman has built Kentucky’s offensive line into a juggernaut. The mean maulers in the trenches paved the way for Lynn Bowden to break multiple rushing records in 2019, surpassing the single-game school record for rushing in consecutive games. What was once the least glorified position is now one of the sexiest on the team, hailed as the Big Blue Wall, the protectors of the BBN. One of the best offensive lines to ever suit up for Kentucky, they’ll be tasked to do something different in 2020.
Leader in the Room
Drake Jackson has been calling the shots from the center position for 33 consecutive games. The former high school All-American from Woodford County is a preseason first team All-SEC selection. It’s difficult to understand his significance as the offensive line’s signal caller until you hear him explain how he directed traffic in this A.J. Rose touchdown run.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) September 16, 2020
#70 Darian Kinnard — The former high school All-American grew up in Knoxville and attended high school in Cleveland. Along with Landon Young, Kinnard and Landon Young are the only two Wildcats to ever start for John Schlarman as true freshmen. A versatile athlete, he will start at right tackle for the Wildcats but he could push down to play the position he’ll assume on Sundays, right guard. The highest-graded returning offensive lineman in the country according to PFF, Kinnard is one nasty dude you don’t want to mess with.
#79 Luke Fortner — Kentucky’s starting right guard could play his way into the NFL Draft this year. A fourth team preseason All-SEC selection according to Phil Steele, Freddie Maggard detailed everything Fortner brings to the table both on and off the field.
#67 Landon Young — A captain of the All-State Good Works team, Kentucky’s starting left tackle has appeared in 36 career games and recorded 64 knockdown blocks. Young prepared for the season by working on his family farm during quarantine . They built a homemade gym in the barn where he could lift weights in-between rolling hay and power washing fences. Before practice began Young also got married.
#68 Kenneth Horsey — Two years ago he had open heart surgery. Now he’s competing to be Kentucky’s starting left guard. See how he overcame the significant hurdle to play SEC football.
#61 Austin Dotson — A redshirt junior, Dotson is expected to rotate regularly with Horsey at left guard. The big blocker from Belfry has been a slow cooker, emerging this preseason as a reliable option in the interior of the offensive line. Transitioning from the Phillip Haywood’s wing-T to Kentucky’s zone running and pass blocking schemes was quite the transition for Dotson. He explained the developmental process earlier this week.
Other Notable Names: #60 Quintin Wilson serves as Drake Jackson’s backup at center, but he can also play either guard position. #66 Naasir Watkins will serve as the Wildcats’ important third tackle, playing either left or right to give Kinnard or Young breaks during the action. Highly-touted JUCO transfer #77 Jeremy Flax took a few weeks to pick up the Cats offense, but Eddie Gran was impressed with Flax’s play in the final two weeks of preseason practice. He can play either guard or tackle on the Big Blue Wall.
Kentucky offensive line Coach John Schlarman has courageously developed a unit that has proven its physicality, development, and technical prowess. His group has even garnished a nickname, The Big Blue Wall. Schlarman’s OL amassed 179 knockdown blocks in 2019 and enters 2020 with 80 collective career starts. Rivals ranks UK offensive line as the 4th best in the nation. The Wildcats have the best offensive line in the Southeastern Conference.
Four starters return from the Wildcat offense line that helped to set the UK single season school record after rushing for 3624-yards, 36 touchdowns, and amassing a 6.3 yards-per- carry mark. Preseason accolades have been plentiful and it all starts with the trigger man, senior center Drake Jackson. Jackson dropped 30-pounds and increased his mobility. He is on Rimington Award Watch List which honors the nation’s top center along with being named 1st Team All SEC and 2nd Team All American according to CBS Sports. PFF lists Jackson as the most valuable center in college football. Simply put, Drake Jackson is the best center to ever play at the University of Kentucky.
Joining Jackson on the preseason CBS Sports All American Team is right tackle Darian Kinnard. The 6’5, 345-pound All SEC junior was ranked by PFF as the top offensive lineman to be playing this fall. 2020 could be his last season in Lexington as Sundays await the highly talented technician. Kinnard’s fellow tackle, Landon Young, recorded 64 knockdown blocks a year ago and is listed on a plethora of preseason All SEC teams. PFF ranks the Young/Kinnard as the 2nd best tackle combination in the nation. Much like Kinnard, professional football awaits for Young. Schlarman considers tackle Naasir Watkins as the 6th starter. The 6’5, 305-pound junior has one start under his belt and has played in 24 games. Watkins is the swing tackle that can play on the right or left side.
Luke Fortner is the steady senior right guard who was also named 3rd Team All SEC according to Athlon. Fortner recorded 27 knockdown blocks and had zero missed assignments in over 600 plays from scrimmage a year ago. The biggest question for John Schlarman’s group is who will replace All SEC and All American left guard Logan Stenberg who is now a Detroit Lion.
Two candidates have emerged: 6’6, 313-pound junior Austin Dotson and redshirt sophomore Kenneth Horsey. Regardless of who gets the starting nod, the newcomer will be sandwiched between a ton of experience in tackle Landon Young (19 starts) and center Drake Jackson (33 consecutive starts). While there will be a learning curve, I don’t expect a major drop off from this position.
There is depth along the Wildcat offensive line. Center Quinton Wilson was a highly ranked recruit out of Cincinnati and is poised to give Jackson a breather if need be. Tackle Nick Lewis is listed at 6’9, 320-pounds. Head coach Mark Stoops has been complimentary of the redshirt sophomore’s progression and development. First year junior college transfer Jeremy Flax was rated by Rivals as the top JUCO offensive tackle. 247Sports listed Flax as the 2nd rated JUCO OT. The talent is there for Flax. Expect his progression to be rapid.
The 2020 Kentucky offensive line is the best unit in the history of the program. With potentially four future professionals, offensive coordinator Eddie Gran has an invaluable tool in the Cat’s physical rushing attack.
Biggest Question Mark
As much as the Wildcats are bringing back, replacing a three-year starter and All-SEC performer at left guard is no easy task. I’m confident at least one of the two candidates can fill the role admirably. There is an even bigger question at play: the Big Blue Wall is filled with some mean, mauling run blockers, but how well can they protect the passer?
Pass-blocking was not a strength in 2018. The Wildcats’ sack rate was 9.5%, far too high. Some of that can attributed to Terry Wilson’s indecisiveness, but some of that is on the O-line. The Cats continued practicing pass-blocking throughout the season in 2019. Practice is not the same as a game. There will be plenty of early season rust. It’s crucial that they kick it off quickly and get comfortable setting their blocks against Auburn’s pass rush.
One Bold Prediction
“Drake Jackson wins the Rimington Award”
Is it that bold of a prediction? Not really. The race for the Rimington Award is seen as a two-person race between Jackson and Oklahoma’s Creed Humphrey. Jackson will have some ground to cover. Humphrey’s size makes him a better NFL Draft prospect and that could cloud the judgment of voters. Nevertheless, if Drake can lead the Big Blue Wall to its best season yet, the perineal Joe Moore Award finalists will be led by the best center in America.