One of the biggest question marks looming over the 2012 Kentucky football team is the offensive line. The depth chart is largely rebuilt from the 2011 season and Kentucky will be replacing several key cogs from last year’s team. While this is certainly a warranted concern, I would argue that this year’s offensive line has a chance to be very good. First though, let’s look at who is gone.
- Senior left tackle Chandler Burden has completed his eligibility and has signed an unrestricted free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans. After coming to Kentucky as a defensive lineman and competing as a backup defensive end for his first two years on campus, Burden moved over to the left tackle position and immediately locked down the starting job. He remained the starter for his final two seasons on campus and started every game in 2011.
Burden was a two-star prospect per rivals and a three-star prospect per scout, and Kentucky was his only BCS conference offer.
- Senior Left guard Stuart Hines completed his eligibility last season and has moved on to join the workforce and reportedly will not pursue a football career. He redshirted for Kentucky in 2007 as a freshman and was inserted into the starting lineup as a sophomore in 2009 and then went on to finish his career as a three year starter last season. Hines started 10 games this past season, sitting out against Western Kentucky and Central Michigan with an injury.
Hines was a consensus three-star prospect and chose Kentucky over offers from Baylor, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, and West Virginia among others.
- Senior right tackle Billy Joe Murphy completed his eligibility this fall and expectedly went undrafted. He has not signed an NFL contract at this time. He came to UK with Hines in 2007 and also redshirted his freshman year. Murphy then spent the next three years as a top backup to both tackle spots before winning the starting right tackle job this past season. He started for the offense in ten games in 2011, sitting out against Central Michigan and Louisville while injured.
Murphy was a consensus three-star player, and chose Kentucky over offers from Louisville and Vanderbilt among others.
- Senior swing-man Jake Lanefski had an interesting career at UK. He never really locked down a starting spot per se, but contributed heavily off the bench at several different positions despite suffering numerous injuries throughout his career. He started three games at center in 2011 and played in seven other contests throughout the year. He also participated in 27 games from 2008-2010, including 4 starts.
Lanefski was a consensus two-star prospect out of high school, and chose Kentucky over USF (his only other BCS offer).
-Also gone from the 2011 roster is redshirt freshman guard James Elliott, who transferred to be closer to home. Elliott did not participate in a single game for Kentucky, sitting out the season while redshirting.
So, it’s obvious that Kentucky lost a lot from the roster from this past season. All three departed starters leave huge holes to be filled and Lanefski was able to provide depth all along the entire offensive line and his value shouldn’t be underestimated either. As stated earlier, the offensive line will be one of the team’s biggest questions marks this offseason. Now that all of that has been said and a wrap-up of who is gone has been done, it’s time to get to the real point of this post. While the four departed seniors do leave a void, the two returning starters might be the two best players on the entire team at any position and the three new players projected to start are very likely to be upgrades over the seniors they’re replacing. While the projected starting lineup right now is relatively green, it’s not like the cupboard is bare and there is reason to think that the 2012 offensive lines might be one of the most talented ever assembled at UK. Here’s why…
- Extensive injuries along the entire line last year allowed true freshman Darrian Miller to step in and contribute as a true freshman, and he capitalized on those opportunities to play very well when he saw the field. He was able to play in 11 games last season and started against Louisville in place of an injured Murphy. Now bigger and stronger, Miller appears to have the starting left tackle position locked down for what should probably be the remainder of his time in Lexington. He is two inches taller than Burden and came to Kentucky with the sole purpose of being the team’s blindside tackle as well. On top of all that, Miller’s ceiling is as high as any player on the roster and he should be an NFL draft pick one day if he continues to develop. Coming out of high school, Miller was also considered a more promising prospect. He was rated as a four-star player by scout, and a three-star player by rivals, ESPN, and 24/7 Sports. His three-star rankings were all one point from being a four star player across the board and he was considered one of the top tackles in the country, ranking as high as #17 nationally by scout. I don’t mean to downplay Burden (who was a very good player for UK), but Miller has to be considered as a sizable upgrade at the left tackle position and I believe he may be one of the best offensive linemen to come through Kentucky in decades.
- Even though he sat out 2011 while redshirting, Zach West was still listed as high as #2 on the depth chart at offensive guard. He came to UK from right here in Lexington and arrived on campus looking like anything but a freshman. After sitting behind Larry Warford and Stuart Hines for a year, he looks to have secured the starting left guard spot moving forward. While his lack of experience may be seen as a vulnerability now, its important to remember that West is likely to be a four year starter at UK by 2014 and will be counted on to be a rock for next seasons offensive line. Coming out of high school, West went from a small blip on the radar of college coaches in the spring to a big name and one of the top prospects in the state by the summer. When all the dust settled, West picked Kentucky over offers from Arkansas, Cincinnati, Louisville, Northwestern, Penn State and Tennessee and was a highly rated three-star prospect by all of the scouting services except for ESPN, which considered him a four star player. West was considered a top 25 offensive lineman by most of the services as well, being ranked as high as the #16 offensive tackle in the country by ESPN and the #17 offensive guard in the country by scout. What he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in potential and ability.
- Incumbent starter Matt Smith will return at center for his senior season in 2012 and he’s been one of the most consistent players Kentucky’s had on the offensive line over the past few years. After redshirting in 2008, he played in two games the following year before taking over as the full-time starter as a third year sophomore in 2010. That season, Smith started at center in all 13 games and only missed the Western Kentucky and Central Michigan games this past year due to injury. Smith should be one of the top centers in the SEC this season and is expected to provide some leadership on a relatively green offensive line. Smith, like many of Kentucky’s older offensive linemen, was not heavily recruited at all. He was a consensus two-star player whose only other offer was from the University of Ohio Bobcats. While not highly regarded initially, Smith has become a force at Center for Kentucky.
- If there’s a surefire NFL player on Kentucky’s current roster, it has to be Larry Warford. He arrived at Kentucky as in 2009 and made waves during camp as a true freshman, pushing for playing time immediately. After playing in 11 games and getting 6 starts in his first season, Warford has gone one to start in every game as a sophomore in 2010 and a junior in 2011. Now heading into his senior year, the team’s best player will be counted on to solidify the young offensive line and has even been cross-trained to play center in case Smith were to go down. Warford should be one of the best offensive linemen in the SEC, and one of the most experienced. If he can stay healthy through the season, Warford will have started in 42 regular season games in his career and will have played in every game during his four seasons at UK except for the Alabama and South Carolina contests in his freshman season. As a guy with more experience than almost any other lineman in the country this coming season, Warford will be counted on heavily and you can be that a lot of Kentucky’s run plays will be behind him.
- The last starter on Kentucky’s offensive line will be junior Kevin Mitchell. What he lacks in experience, he makes up for in sheer size. Standing at over 6’6 and weighing in at just under 300 pounds, Mitchell is a prototypical SEC tackle. While he is the projected starter at this point, he has seen the field in his first three years at UK. Mitchell redshirted in 2009 as a true freshman and played in six games the following year as a reserve. This past season, Mitchell was moved to guard and backed up Stuart Hines for most of the season, and even started against Western Kentucky and Central Michigan. Now, he appears to have edged out senior Trevino Woods for the vacant right tackle position. Mitchell wasn’t a very highly rated player in high school, and ended up as a consensus two-star player. Still, he picked Kentucky over offers from Indiana and Oregon, so he obviously had some potential. Now that the offensive line has been solidified (for the time being at least) it will be up to Mitchell, Smith, and Warford to bring the two youngsters along.
So even though Kentucky will be replacing over half of its starters on the offensive line, there is certainly some hope that the replacements will do just fine. The real concern should probably be depth. Throughout the spring, Kentucky only had four scholarship linemen on the team.
- Senior Trevino Woods appears to have lost the competition for the starting right tackle spot and should be a primary backup to both Miller and Mitchell. He has struggled to get to a size that will allow him to compete in the SEC and is currently listed at only 281 pounds despite heading into his fifth year in the program. He has played in 22 games throughout his career, but the clock has pretty much run out on his opportunity to win a starting job.
- Behemoth Teven Eatmon-Nared is heading into his third year with the program and will be a sophomore this season after redshirting his freshman year. He did not earn a varsity letter last season and has been moved from tight end (as a high school player), to tackle (first two years at UK), and now to guard. At 6’7 and 320+ pounds, he is an imposing player, but some concerns about his athleticism forced him to move inside despite a lack of depth at tackle. After initially splitting reps with West, he ran exclusively with the second team in the spring game.
- Sam Simpson will be heading into his fourth year with the program as a junior. He was considered as one of the top ten centers in the country as a senior in high school, but a series of injuries has prevented him from seeing the field much in his time at UK. He has not taken a meaningful snap at UK and it appears that some chronic back injuries may cut his career short. While he hasn’t officially given up football at this point, I would expect him to before the start of the season.
- Shaquille Love sat out his freshman season while redshirting and making the transition from defensive tackle to offensive guard. He is a relative unknown at this point and outside of the spring game, most UK fans have never seen him play on the offensive line. A serious lack of depth will likely move Love up the depth chart to being one of the team’s top reserves.
The really scary thing is that that is every scholarship lineman on the roster at this point. Kentucky will have some options for depth from the walk-ons too, but not all of them are serious contenders to contribute at this point. Here’s why…
- Max Godby is heading into his third year at UK. After attending high school at the tiny Christian Academy of Louisville, he made it as a walk-on at UK and actually started at center for the second team in the spring game. Uncertainty surrounding Sam Simpson’s future has left him at the #2 spot for the foreseeable future at this point too. He has great size for a walk on at 6’4 and 275 pounds, but you’d still really rather have scholarship players at the one and two spots on your depth chart.
- Tyler Davenport sat out this spring while recovering from an injury, and he’s listed as the second string left tackle despite not participating in the spring. He also has decent size for a walk-on at 6’5 and 323 pounds, but his limited playing time and injury status make him a concern at this point. If he can get on the field so we can see him play, this might be a different story. Again, you really hate to have walk-ons in the two deep.
- Kelly Mason is heading into his second year at UK. While I’m sure he has talent (otherwise he wouldn’t be on the team), standing at 6’3 and weighing in at 240 pounds makes him sound more like a tight end or a fullback than an offensive lineman.
- Stephen Duff is heading into his junior season. He has not played at this point, and really is not expected to. At 6’0 and 327 pounds, he doesn’t really have the ideal dimensions that you’d like an SEC guard to have.
- Jake Gruenschlaeger is a redshirt freshman that is intriguing. He doesn’t have a long history of playing football, but is 6’11 and weighs 360 pounds. He ran with the second team in the spring game, but he’ll have to learn how to use his size to his advantage if he wants to see game action. That said, with the type of size and reach he has, he could be a major force for UK if he can pull it all together.
Needless to say, it’s very likely that some combination of the incoming freshmen will see some playing time in their first year in the program. Tackles T.J. Jones and Jordan Swindle have size and length, guards Zach Myers and Jordan Watson have the nasty streak you look for in an interior lineman, and Jon Toth has a nice combination of talents that will allow him to play in several spots. While depth is ceratinly going to be a concern, hopefully reading all of this has made everyone feel at least a little better about the direction of this group moving forward.