Note: Former UK lineman, and 2009 All-SEC, Zipp Duncan provided significant insight for this post as well as content in his very own section in the article. I'm sure this is the first time an A Sea of Blue post received significant input from someone with their own Wikipedia page. If you're on Twitter give him a follow @zippduncan.
In the game of football, this unit is an under-appreciated bunch. They are a group of tight knit brothers who revel in the success of their teammates for the greater good of the team. They are silent warriors who bear unflattering nicknames like "the Big Uglies", or as the 1982 Redskins were simply known: "The Hogs".
While the job can be thankless, the unit is actually the most important unit on the offense. A great offensive line can make a mediocre running back look like an all-conference performer. A great line can give a slightly above average quarterback enough time to allow the defense to break down and find an open man.
The offensive line is the ultimate game closer too; when you are winning and you need to grind that clock down, you lean on that line to get the running back 3-4 yards per carry and get first downs. Against South Carolina last fall, with the team down 14 points in the fourth quarter, the offensive line went Beast Mode. Start watching here.
South Carolina has loaded the box, but UK's offensive linemen still blow them off the line of scrimmage. Free offensive linemen are following their zone blocking assignments, and getting downfield to block second-level defenders. Jojo Kemp rightfully got a lot of praise that night, he read his blockers well and broke some tackles, but make no mistake where the success originated.
Watch any zombie movie, or if you are a fan boy of the show "The Walking Dead" like me, then you know that having four solid walls around you means you live. This is the best comparison I can give to the offensive line. They are those four walls, if any of the walls break down you are looking at your QB being eaten.
Looking back on last season, Kentucky was ranked in the bottom third of the SEC in most rushing categories last season, and they were one of the worst teams in the league for sacks allowed. A big part of that was youth across the board, and the lack of a single player or two playing exceptionally well and consistently.
There is some cause for hope. The advanced stats, for example, actually ranked a young offensive line 48th last season. This year's version of the Wildcats line should be bigger, stronger, and improved. The loss of Darrian Miller to the NFL will sting given the thinness at the tackle position, but there is experienced talent returning at the interior of the line. That talent is a strong foundation for long-term success.
DEPTH CHART DISCUSSION
This is the first depth chart to come out of camp and the first thing I see is that there are only two seniors in that group of 12.
- Seniors - 2
- Juniors - 2
- Sophomores - 4
- Freshmen - 4
The vocal leader of this group will be senior Jordan Swindle, but the on-field leader will be center Jon Toth. Toth is a 2-year starter returning for his junior season. Toth has been tabbed as one of the nation's best centers to watch this season by being named to the Rimington Trophy watch list.
The center position itself is the most important position on the line from a team aspect. The tackle that protects a quarterback's blindsides are the ones getting drafted the highest in the NFL but that is more a product of protecting the Quarterback than importance to the overall team.
The center is the quarterback of the line. He determines blocking schemes and audibles. The Center has to figure out the defense's scheme and adjust accordingly... all in about 10 seconds. It is a position where his decisions can elevate the other four or destroy them.
Patrick Towles had this to say about Toth,
"I give him the calls and he gets it together upfront. I can change it if I need to, but he's the real brains. He gets everybody going in the right direction."
Toth's position coach John Schlarman has high praise for his center as well, saying,
"He's like a coach out on the field, you can teach it, you can show it to him and then you can turn him loose, and he can execute it and make sure some of those younger guys around him are going in the right direction".
Swindle is the lone senior that will be starting and one of only two seniors that will see playing time this season. If Jon Toth, who is fittingly a mechanical engineer major, is the cerebral part of the line who directs, coordinates and delegates, then Jordan Swindle is the 6'7", 309 pounds of nasty disposition of the group.
Swindle played in 11 games his freshman season and started every game as a sophomore and junior. During that sophomore season where he was a regular starter, he learned some tough lessons from Bud Dupree. Dupree regularly dominated Swindle in practice, once Swindle was tired of ended up on his backside he went to work.
He busted his tale in the weight room and the film room and developed into a lineman who not only could hold his own against the future first round NFL pick, but actually got the better of him more times than not.
John Schlarman said,
"Bud kind of had his way with him, Swindle was on the wrong end of the stick quite a few times".
Once Jordan adjusted and improved himself not only did he start winning those one-on-ones, he made Dupree better.
If you watched more than one Kentucky football game last season, you know that Swindle had some significant false start issues. Swindle has worked so hard to remedy that aspect of his game that he has turned to the UK sports psychologist. Swindle feels this has given him big strides in making those false starts a moot point.
Zipp Duncan's thoughts on Swindle
It is unlikely that anyone would have a better grasp on Swindle's position than Zipp does. Zipp was a left tackle also, and he was an All-SEC performer in 2009. Here are Zipp's thoughts on Swindle... more from Zipp later in the article.
Regarding Jordan Swindle's false start "issues." It is a lonely island at left tackle, couple that with SEC pass rushers and an offense that spent a lot of time in third and long situations and you have a recipe for disaster.
You have an NFL caliber speed rusher that resembles an armored bear coming at you and you are trying to get out of your stance and into your kick slide as quick as possible. I always ask people if they would rather be in an Olympic sprinting stance when running from a bear, or kick sliding backwards... it's an easy answer.
Offensive linemen are at a disadvantage in that situation and have to trust their pass set technique and punch.... I think he will be just fine this year, trust his technique and continue to be a great blindside protector.
Ramsey Myers, Kyle Meadows, and Nick Haynes
This trio of sophomores is essentially beginning their careers with Kentucky as full-on starters. Each got significant playing time and Ramsey Meyers actually took over a starting job for the last four games of 2014.
All three of them were redshirts in 2013 and used the time to their advantage to break into the lineups as redshirt freshmen last season and that experience under their belt should translate to a significant jump in execution this season. That jump is a much-needed component to solidifying a line that struggled quite a bit last season.
You may not know how to pronounce his last name yet (pronounced ah-SAH-fo ad-JAY)... but you will. The true freshman is a tremendous talent that is already pegged as a strong contributor this season.
He is a former 4-star recruit and at 18 years old already possesses a lineman's body at 6'5" 315 pounds. Mark Stoops would love nothing more than to redshirt every lineman he recruits, but Asafo-Adjei and his talent are going to keep that from happening.
"Absolutely," Stoops said. "He certainly appears to be one of the top five, six, seven guys on the O-line. The first thing you look at (with freshmen) is physically whether guys can do it or not and whether they're mature enough that they can handle it. He certainly is.
"Then you've got to look at him mentally, whether they can handle everything you're asking them to do. We've been very pleased with what we've seen out of him."
When he should have been planning for his prom and hanging out with his high school friends, Asafo-Adjei was enrolled at UK and participating/impressing in spring practice. Expect to see a lot of George Asafo-Adjei this season and a pillar of the line for years to come.
This unit finished 2014 as the second to worst in the SEC at giving up sacks and 105th nationally. The run game sputtered more than it should have leaving Kentucky in the bottom third of the conference in rushing statistics.
The outlook for this season is promising and should provide a much more consistent result. The leadership of Toth and Swindle combined with the talent of Asafo-Adjei and the leap in production from the trio of sophomores should equate to the offensive line being a strength of the offense this season. An injury to Swindle would be devastating, so staying healthy will be a significant factor for 2015.
The long-term outlook should make you downright giddy with 8 of the top 12 lineman being freshman or sophomores. Add to that, the commitments of Landon Young, Drake Jackson, Tate Leavitt, and Marcelys Jones make this unit potentially one of the best in the SEC. In the year that coach Stoops looks to make a significant leap in his tenure, he has done a great job of setting this unit up for the same progression.
All-SEC player Zipp Duncan's thoughts on what it takes to succeed in the SEC as a unit
The offensive line is certainly a brotherhood. It consists of five guys working tirelessly in concert to execute the play call and put the offense in a position to be successful. Getting lined up, recognizing defensive fronts, calling out blocking/protection schemes all occurs in a 10-12 second window before the ball is even snapped.
You learn to trust and rely on your brothers in the heat of the battle. The old analogy of a fist being stronger than five individual fingers definitely applies here.
In regards to UK ranking near the bottom third in rushing categories and near the top in sacks allowed.... this is how it usually occurs:
- Kentucky was starting a young, inexperienced QB
- Combine this with struggling to establish a consistent running game
- This leads to down and distance passing situations
- SEC defensive coordinators feast on this situation
- With no legitimate downhill run threat, d-coordinators unleash different blitz packages and wreak havoc.
With another year of weight room development and on-field reps, I believe the run game improves drastically this season.
Having a successful run game comes down to two components: mentality and the timing/execution of the five guys up front. Much like the South Carolina game, I believe the mentality is there. Nothing boosts an offensive lineman's morale more than establishing a downhill running game in which you are physically/mentally wearing down your opponents.
Establishing a consistent ground game keeps the defense honest and opens up the playbook. If you can run the ball in the SEC, you have the ability to shorten the game and give yourself a chance to be competitive.
Timing/execution is developed through the hundreds of reps from winter conditioning fieldwork, spring ball, summer workouts, and camp. Offensive line play is a game of 6-inch steps and angles that occurs at 100mph.
Within the zone block scheme, every lineman is on a "track" where they block the defender in their area. In most cases, the O-Linemen work together in two or three man combo schemes and are initially responsible for the men lined up over them and a specific linebacker.
Countless hours are spent working together to establish the correct "Track" and footwork that will allow you to combo block the defensive lineman together until one of you take on the linebacker. Along with that, you must also trust that your brother on the line understands the scheme and has your back.
There are times when on the snap of the ball, the D-Lineman slants across your face and onto the "track" of the guy beside you. You know that the hours of practice you and your brethren put in will pay off when the slanting D-Lineman is picked up by the guy inside of you, allowing you to climb to the Linebacker.
These recognitions and split second decisions are made on every play and are critical for successful execution. Most people just see "big guys" running in to each other, but all offensive linemen know that there is a beauty and purpose in every step.
In the power run scheme, the most important block is the play-side double team. This can occur between a Tackle and a Guard or between a Tackle and a Tight End. This double team establishes where the running lane will be so the pulling guard and running back know where to attack.
On the aforementioned double team, the inside man is the "post" man and he sets up the block. On the snap, he takes a short inside step to protect his inside gap. He then fires into his half of the defensive man.
While this is occurring, the "drive" man is firing out of his stance and taking the proper footwork that will put him in a position to be square with the post man and take his half of the D-Lineman. Once they have their hips together, they work to drive the D-Lineman off the ball.
As they are doing this, they keep their eyes on the Linebacker they are combo blocking. The backside guard pulls around to lead the Running Back through the established running lane. His job is to block the play-side Linebacker... this collision is reminiscent of a train wreck and the truest test of individual will power.
Overall, the offensive line performance is a complex work of art when conducting properly. It is a game of angles, proper footwork, communication, and trust. It takes a special mentality to be able to play such a physical position, yet be cerebral enough to process your assignment and technique within a matter of seconds per play.