The axiom goes, at any level of football, winning or losing is most often determined in the trenches. Which line of beef, the offensive or defensive, is most successful in punishing its opponent? The offensive line is charged with creating space for the running backs and protecting the quarterback, while its defensive counterpart attempt to plug holes and pressure the quarterback. Last season, Kentucky's offensive line, a preseason pick to be one of the strengths of the team, clearly dropped the ball, and played a starring role in UK's "step back" season.
Whether it be because all of the Wildcat starting o-linemen spent more time in the training room mending from injuries than on the field becoming a cohesive unit (during fall practice), or because UK's earth movers were vastly overrated, the result was a putrid running game and constantly pressured Kentucky signal-callers, which led to Joker Phillips' second team averaging only 15.8 points per game on an anemic 259.8 yards per contest, both figures last in the SEC.
The unfortunate, 2011 offensive carnage for the 'Cats does not end there, though. Kentucky ranked at the bottom or very near the bottom in the following SEC categories (conference rank in parenthesis):
- Rush yards per game -- 124.2 (11).
- Yards per carry -- 3.5 (10).
- Rushing touchdowns -- nine (12).
- Sacks against -- 35 for a loss of 211 yards (12).
- First downs per game -- 14.2 (12).
- Third down conversions -- 29.0 percent (12).
- Total touchdowns -- 21 (t11): For the sake of comparison, there were four SEC clubs that scored 50 touchdowns or more: LSU (56), Georgia (52), Arkansas (51), and Alabama (50).
- Last season, other than UK's games against Central Michigan and Jacksonville State, the 'Cats averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry in the other 10 contests, and fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in six games (WKU, UofL, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Georgia).
- Kentucky scored more than 20 points against only Central Michigan (27 points), and Jacksonville State (38), while the only conference foe the 'Cats managed 20 against was the league's worst squad, Ole Miss (30).
Looking at those numbers, it's difficult to conceive how the Wildcats won even five games in 2011 (Hat Tip: UK's defense and the schedule maker). For unless a team has Peyton Manning or Matthew Stafford at the helm, or an LSU-type of defense, it has to be able to run the ball to set up the passing game, particularly in UK's pro style offensive scheme.
A quick look at a few of UK's most successful offensive football teams over the last decade drives home that very point, and serves as a yardstick by which (immediate) future UK offenses should be judged:
- UK's 2002 Guy Morris-led squad, which posted an unexpected 7-5 record (and was one defensive secondary breakdown from being 8-4), rushed for 1,782 yards (148.5 yards per game), for an average of 4.1 yards per carry, and scored 19 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 32.1 points per game. Artose Pinner was the stud back, running for 1,414 yards.
- In 2007 Kentucky went 8-5, as the 'Cats' backs rushed for 2,021 yards (154.8 ypg), for an average of 4.2 yards per carry, and scored 20 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 36.5 points per contest. The sensational Rafael Little carried the mail for Kentucky by accounting for 1,013 rush yards.
- In 2009, even with a struggling passing game, Kentucky posted a 7-6 record while rushing for 2,486 yards (191.2 ypg), for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, and scored 26 rushing TDs, while averaging 26.1 points per game. That year it was a committee of UK backs who saved the 'Cats' bacon: Derrick Locke (907 yards), Randall Cobb (573), Alfonso Smith (245), and Moncell Allen (228).
- In 2010, a 6-7 UK squad ran for 2,061 yards (158.5 ypg), for an average of 4.6 yards per carry, and again scored 26 rushing touchdowns, while averaging 32.1 points per game. It was running back by committee once again for the 'Cats as Derrick Locke (887), Randall Cobb (424), Donald Russell (293), and Raymond Sanders (254) ran the rock effectively for Kentucky.
Simply put, in order for the 'Cats, who boast a stable of capable backs, including CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders, Jonathan George (no word on whether Josh Clemons will redshirt), and two freshman with great promise (DyShawn Mobley & Justin Taylor), to excel on the offensive end, it's the offensive line which must open holes for the ball carriers, and protect Max Smith from those bad-intentioned d-linemen (last year, UK's o-line allowed Kentucky QBs to be sacked four or more times in six games).
In 2012, those men include the following:
Right guard, Larry Warford: A 6-foot-3, 343 pound senior, Warford was named a Second Team All-SEC player last year, and his combination of speed and power has allowed him to lead the 'Cats in knockdown blocks in each of the last two seasons. Warford, who played his high school ball at Madison Central, has 25 consecutive starts under his belt, and has played in 35 total games in his career. Backing-up Warford will be 6-foot-4, 310 pound redshirt freshman Shaquille Love.
Left guard, Zach West: Rated the No. 17 offensive guard out of Lexington Christian High School, West is a 6-foot-4, 312 pound redshirt frosh who possesses great size, strength, and athleticism, the Holy Trinity for o-linemen, and came out of spring practice the starter at left guard. He will be backed up by Teven Eatmon-Nared, a 6-foot-7, 342 pound sophomore bull dozer.
Right tackle, Kevin Mitchell: A player with a lone start on his resume' (vs. WKU in the 2011 season opener), Mitchell is a 6-foot-6, 287 pound redshirt junior who is making the switch from left guard (where he played his first two years) to right tackle. Mitchell has played in 18 games in his two years. Backing up the Winston, Ga. native is 6-foot-5, 281 pound senior, Trevino Woods.
Left tackle, Darrian Miller: A future All-SEC player, Miller is a 6-foot-5, 293 pound sophomore who has a penchant for picking up schemes quickly. As a true freshman last season, Miller played in all 12 Wildcat contests and impressed coaches with his combination of strength and quickness. A Scout.com top-20 o-line talent at Bryan Station High School, Miller is on the fast track to becoming a stalwart in UK's offense. Miller will be backed-up by 6-foot-7, 310 pound true freshman Jordan Swindle, a top-100 o-line prospect out of Florida.
Center, Matt Smith: A 6-foot-4, 296 pound senior out of Louisville St. X High School, Smith is on the Rimington Trophy watch list again in 2012, an honor given to the nation's top center. An intelligent player and two-year starter (he missed UK's first two games last year), Smith is responsible for calling UK's offensive line set, and he, along with Warford, will be looked at by the coaching staff to provide leadership to their green-horn o-line teammates. Smith has played in 29 games for UK, with 22 starts. Backing-up Smith will be 6-foot-4, 280 pound sophomore Max Godby, a Christian Academy of Louisville product.
These are the men who must perform up to the standard set by their bowl-bound predecessors over the last decade. Anything resembling last season's o-line debacle will send the 'Cats home bowl-less, and perhaps searching for a new head coach.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!