One of, if not the biggest question mark entering the 2022 season for Kentucky Football is the offensive line.
The loss of NFL rookies and long-time starters Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner leaves behind big shoes to fill (metaphorically and literally) and while the Wildcats have plenty of options in the trenches, it’s not clear if the line will have the same talent as it has in years past.
Offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said on Tuesday that preseason camp has been a challenge for the O line and although the first game of the season is fast approaching, there are still some undetermined starters, especially at tackle.
“The tackle position, there are four guys who take a lot of reps. One of them I know for sure (will start) and the other three we will find out, so it’s a good competition healthy,” Scangarello said.
Part of finding out where certain players are in the line is through cross-training, which Scangarello and offensive line coach Zach Yenser say the Cats are doing throughout fall camp.
“Obviously we’re going to start moving here with one more camp week and then a game week, but it’s been good, the guys have reps on both sides, we just have to feel where the guys feel at comfortable,” Yenser said.
Lexington native Jager Burton is a standout player in the guard position, someone the entire offense has been raised on since arriving from Frederick Douglass High School a year ago.
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“His athletic ability, the way he bends in a way that he can stop. He’s a very powerful human being and he can play with very good leverage and he’s just very athletic right off the bat” , Yenser said of Burton’s advantage. “He’s just understanding the ins and outs of the O line, but he can recover very, very well.”
Between Burton’s youth and incoming five-star rookie Kiyaunta Goodwin, mixed with veterans Eli Cox and Kenneth Horsey, as well as transfer from Auburn Tashawn Manning, there’s been a bit of a learning curve for the 2022 interpretation of the Big Blue Wall.
Start a competition for a starting job the first week…it’s a lot to manage for a group. Yenser, however, trusts his older guys to take charge and lead the way heading into the season:
“We just have to keep gelling as a unit,” he said. “When you put Tashawn, Eli and Horsey in there, they played a lot of SEC snaps, so this unit together is really good.”
Replacing production star players such as Kinnard and Fortner is far from easy, and new players shouldn’t be expected to do it right away. As much pride as the UK takes in its ability to create powerful O-line groups that pave the way for running backs like Benny Snell and Chris Rodriguez, it’s still not at the level of an Alabama or… ‘a Georgia, both of which can hook-up new players without a hitch on an annual basis.
Cox is adjusting to his new home at the center, while Horsey and Burton are going to be asking for a lot more than in previous years. Manning, though a veteran, only has a year of starting experience. Goodwin has the physical presence of a guy who can play on Sundays, but how soon will he be seen in blue and white?
At the moment, there are more questions than answers for Kentucky’s offensive line. The tests are going to come quickly, especially when the Cats travel to the Swamp for a night game Sept. 10 against Florida. Yenser, unwavering, knows that finding the answers will take time, rehearsal, and maybe even experimentation along the way.
“I feel comfortable right now with seven, probably eight guys up front. I want to keep the guys fresh,” he said. “I don’t want to put the line at risk either, I want to make sure the best guys get reps and I want to make sure we have the best chance of winning.”