It’s been a competitive fall camp for the Kentucky Wildcats’ Big Blue Wall as new offensive line coach Zach Yenser will have a deep rotation for the 2022 season. However, there’s little doubt who will be the anchor up front this year as Eli Cox will lock down the coveted center position.
Gone from last year’s offensive line are Darian Kinnard, Dare Rosenthal, and Luke Fortner, who made the successful jump from offensive lineman to center, on his way to the NFL where he’s projected as a starter in his rookie season with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Now it’s time for Cox to make that same transition, moving over to the center position after starting at right guard in the first nine games last season before suffering a season-ending hand injury vs. Tennessee. The Nicholasville, Kentucky, native already has a strong foundation at his new position, playing center as a freshman and sophomore at West Jessamine High School before becoming a 3-star recruit at guard in 2019.
Cox officially took over center duties during spring practice and has made great strides during fall camp, working closely with Drake Jackson, twice named first-team All-SEC at center after making 44 consecutive starts between 2017 through 2020. Jackson is now in his first year as a graduate assistant coach.
“He’s done a phenomenal job of studying and taking on that role, but I think he’s had good ones to learn from from the past,” said Yenser of Cox’s transition. “Obviously, having Drake (Jackson) in the room has helped him with his confidence with the snapping position, the calls and all that stuff. I just think his mentality, and how physical he is, a lot of his characteristics just make a good offensive lineman, whether that’s playing center or guard we have a lot of confidence in him. “
New offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello has continued to have high praise for Cox, who like quarterback Will Levis, has a high football IQ and a great feel for the new offense.
“I feel very good about where we’re at at center,” said Scangarello. “Eli is an outstanding player and that helps solidify the whole group. When your quarterback and center are as smart as they are, it can take you a long way, That’s usually what will hold you back, but fortunately for us, those two guys (are) the one percenters where they can handle a lot.”
- Position: Center
- Class: Junior
- Measurements: 6-foot-4, 298 lbs.
- Hometown: Nicholasville, Kentucky
- School: West Jessamine High School
- Recruiting Rankings: Was ranked as a 3-star recruit by Rivals and 247 Sports and was the No. 14 prospect in Kentucky in the class of 2019.
With Cox and left guard Kenneth Horsey the only returning starters up front, this year’s O-Line remains a work in progress as fall camp has a created a healthy competition under the watchful eye of Yenser, who’s in his first season at Kentucky after coaching the past three years with the San Francisco 49ers.
The current plan is to start Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning (guard) and Jeremy Flax (tackle) on the right side, while David Wohlabaugh Jr. and freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin continue to battle for the left tackle job. Deondre Buford and Jager Burton will also be in the rotation for the Wildcats, who can go eight deep up front.
With so many new faces, Cox knows that this year’s O-Line will have to prove itself to maintain its status as one of the top offensive lines in the country. The Wildcats have been listed as a finalist the past couple of seasons for the Joe Moore Award, recognizing the Most Outstanding Offensive Line in college football.
“That Big Blue Wall name is something we have to earn every season,” said Cox, who has been named to the preseason Outland Trophy Watch List. “We still have a lot of ways that we can improve. The run game is going to be different, it’s different than it has been. We’re going to run different schemes and different looks that we’re going to try to be very multiple to give defenses trouble, so we need to keep getting better.”
Fortunately, Cox says that going up against a dominant Kentucky defense each day has accelerated the learning curve for both sides of the ball.
“It’s a battle in the trenches every day,” said Cox. “Iron sharpens iron, everyone knows that, so having a talented defensive unit to go against every day…I mean I think we have some of the best linebackers in the country, I think we have some of the best defensive lineman so being able to go against those guys every day is only making both sides of the ball better.”
The first big test for the Big Blue Wall comes in the season opener on September 3rd against Miami (OH) at Kroger Field.
“Big Blue Nation isn’t just the fans. It's the players, the team, this organization, and this university. We’re all a part of Big Blue Nation together. If they’re in trouble we’ll help them out the best we can."@UKFootball’s Eli Cox on Eastern Kentucky flood relief efforts pic.twitter.com/nzQzV6Y2la— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) August 9, 2022