Kentucky is struggling to win football games in 2013. The prospect of a two-win season serves as a catalyst for hand-wringing and moralizing narratives by some within the restive fan base. These players are soft. These players don't know how to win. These young coaches seem over their heads. Why isn't Kentucky running the Air Raid like they promised? Patrick Towles should play! Start burning redshirts!! Thank goodness basketball has started!!!
Reality is less cathartic. A simple explanation for the offense’s failings is the offense line. Offensive lines are foundational for any offense, so deficiencies there will be systematic to an entire offense. Offensive line problems exacerbate shortcomings at the skill positions and place even more pressure on a struggling defense and special teams. What factors have placed Kentucky in this position?
Roster and Experience
Here is the offensive line’s depth chart for last Saturday’s Vanderbilt game:
|Max Godby (or)||JR||*|
The offensive line may have returned three starters this season, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Arguably, both of Kentucky’s best players last year were center Matt Smith and guard Larry Warford. Each were three year starters, and their loss of experience is being felt this season in the line’s interior where offensive coordinator Neal Brown has implicitly stated the interior line is having the most problems. Kevin Mitchell was moved to guard this season after playing all of last year at right tackle, and he’s reportedly battle nagging injuries most of the 2013 campaign.
The center position is being manned by players who, prior to this season, had never played the position at the collegiate or high school level; moreover, in the spring Jon Toth was getting reps at tackle. Jordan Swindle is listed as the starting right tackle and back-up left tackle, which speaks to the lack of depth at that position. This became even more evident after Darrian Miller was injured during the Vanderbilt game.
Meanwhile, two walk-ons are listed as key reserves. Teven Eatmon-Nared is now four years into the program, and he is being beat out by a walk-on. Shaquille Love was recruited as a defensive tackle and converted to an offensive lineman. There are solid pieces within the unit, but this is a patchwork offensive line that has to compete in the SEC.
The offensive line is traditionally not a position that should be starting (or having as key reserves) freshmen or sophomores because of the speed and the physicality within the trenches. Beyond learning techniques and putting on weight, there's also the mental development that comes into defensive recognition, making line calls before the ball gets snapped, and being able to work together in combination. Many things happen in the course of about four or five seconds, and the ability to anticipate and react can take longer than other positions. Ideally, offensive linemen get to spend a few years adding mass, getting stronger, learning the system, and then later resurface into a fan base’s collective consciousness as fully-formed wrecking-ball behemoths.
Yet, Kentucky’s linemen weren’t given the opportunity to do so for several seasons, and now the house of cards is collapsing.
Linemen recruitment under the previous coaching regime was borderline negligent. There was only one 2010 offensive lineman signee. There were three signees in the 2011 class, but only two remain with the team. There were five signees in the 2012 class, but only four remain on the squad. This pretty much says it all. To be competitive and build depth, a team typically needs to be signing 4-5 offensive linemen every class, and then they will usually need years of seasoning to mature and be effective.
Coach Stoops’ staff is approaching the offensive line’s recruitment and development the proper way. With limited time to recruit, his staff signed four offensive linemen (though Justin Day didn’t qualify academically) and had the discipline to redshirt the entire group. Additionally, it’s also long been rumored that defensive tackle Jacob Hyde’s real future is playing guard on the offensive line after his redshirt season. The 2014 commitment class shows continued emphasis placed on signing offensive linemen. There are currently three commitments, and it’s widely believed Kentucky wants to sign at least one more - if not two.
New Blocking Scheme
Playing young players is problematic, particularly when learning a new offensive system. The previous offensive system was a pro-style offense with an entirely different blocking scheme. Kentucky’s current offensive system utilizes zone blocking schemes which requires linemen to block zones instead of a man. This system requires heavy doses of repetition in order to be effective as well as linemen who are smarter, communicative, quicker, and more disciplined than most of their peers - all attributes that require a higher quality of lineman. Shuffling linemen may not have helped things. Seasoning is imperative and any mid-season injuries could potentially disrupt continuity.
If Kentucky calls it’s blocking schemes from the inside-out (originating with the center and filtering out to the tackles or tight end), then even more importance is put on the redshirt freshman center Toth and the injured guard Mitchell to play well. This could help explain why Kentucky runs so many plays to the outside in the form of sweeps and avoids running up the middle.
Another possible factor could be that Kentucky has a new offensive line coach this season named John Scharlman. This is his first year coaching against SEC-level competition, and his learning curve may have been just as steep as the players. To Scharlman’s credit, there were glaring flaws with the offensive line prior to his arrival. Under his tutelage, the offensive line has at least largely avoided silly penalties this season. Judgement on Scharlman’s performance should be reserved until the offensive line has more time to become an experienced, cohesive unit, which likely won't happen for at least a year.
Kentucky fans can take heart from the fact that, despite the lingering offensive line issues, the skill position players are putting up bigger numbers than last year. This bodes well for the future when the systemic offensive line issues become resolved. Kentucky had two options when the line problems became apparent: Stay the course and hope repetition breeds improvement or start to meddle by resorting to different personnel combinations, gimmicks, and schemes. Kentucky has elected to take the former route which should pay long-term dividends.
Looking at roster demographics raises the possibility that the offensive line could be a two to three year project like much of the current roster. Next season will see the graduation of Mitchell, and Miller will be the single senior starter. There will only be a single junior starter. No other SEC team would want to claim anything similar. Back-ups, and possibly even starters, will largely be comprised of walk-ons and redshirt freshmen. Marginal improvements are likely, and this season’s experience should also be instructive for the off season. The problems of depth will persist.
Changing a program takes time. Kentucky's offensive line is but one of the microcosms enlisted within the larger effort.