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'Big Nasties' not surrendering to unfavorable situation, sacks

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FB 09_10 UK_FL  WEB 076.jpgFollowing a near flawless performance at Auburn, one in which the Cats surrendered just one sack with three different quarterbacks under center, Rich Brooks started to praise his offensive line.

"The performance so far is clearly better than any offensive line that I've had since I have been here," Brooks said last week. "You just look at the number of sacks given up and the rushing yards against quality defenses. It is a very good group."

And then Brooks remembered his appraisal of his past lines.
"Do you know the old theory about mushrooms?" Brooks said. "You keep them in the dark and you feed them that fertilizer stuff, you know? Usually when you start to praise your O-line, for some reason in my past experience, they don't play as well very quick. I praised them in a loss (to South Carolina), and obviously they are getting a lion's share of the recognition this week, which they deserve. Now, I just have to hope they understand how they got to where they are and don't get fat-headed."

Don't worry, Rich, these big boys up front have been through too many ups and downs and too many battles in the trenches to let a few compliments go to their heads. Despite any disappointments of the past, UK's offensive line is finally playing up to its expectations.

In fact, it's exceeding them.

Statistically speaking, the Cats enter this week's Mississippi State game allowing just one sack a game, tied for 14th in the nation and second in the Southeastern Conference. With the help of the gaping holes provided by the offensive line, UK's rushing attack is ranked 26th nationally, with more than 186 yards per game.

Offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins said it all comes down to experience.

"I think we're making progress," Heggins said. "We've still got a ways to go. Each day is different for those guys. We see different fronts and you've got different blitzes we've got to pick up with each team, so we've got to keep coming along and working as a unit.

"It just takes time for those guys to jell together. They've jelled together, so they're obviously getting the pieces to the puzzle."

Experience wise, there might not be a more veteran group in all of college football. The Cats typically start four seniors (Zipp Duncan, Christian Johnson, Jorge Gonzalez and Justin Jeffries) and a sophomore (Stuart Hines), but the trials and obstacles many of them have overcome might be more telling of their grit than anything.

Despite switching to left tackle from left guard - the second position change in his career at UK - Duncan has started to flourish on what Heggins called "an island" against the speedy defensive ends of the SEC.

Duncan has improved so much in his transition that Johnson called him the nastiest player on the line in the Louisiana-Monroe game following a play where Duncan drove his rusher completely out of the camera.  

Gonzalez was suspended weeks before the season started for a violation of team rules and missed the season opener against Miami (Ohio). The fifth-year center has rebounded with a highly productive season, capped off by SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week honors for his performance against ULM.

And then there's Johnson, one of the most maligned players a season ago. Johnson, the brother of senior linebacker Micah Johnson, redshirted last season because of personal, weight and academic problems. It was unclear whether Johnson would even return this season, much less what his role would be, but the 6-foot-4, 330-pound guard has returned and is quietly having his most productive season in his UK career.

FB 09_10 UK_UL WEB TeamCoyle 055.jpgJohnson is just one of the prime examples of the hard-nosed, battle-tested linemen that are coming through for UK this year. Johnson said to call them the "Big Nasties."

"We have to be. That's what we want to be known as," Johnson said. "Honestly, when you have a good O-line, defenses know when they're coming to the game that it's going to be a long game, that we're going to be in their face, we're going to try to knock them down and show them who's boss."

Statistics aside, the most impressive feat of the Big Nasties this season has been their ability to rally around an ever-changing quarterback position.

With the injury to Mike Hartline, the addition of the Wildcat package, and the alternation of Morgan Newton and Will Fidler, the offensive line has had to block for a new player sometimes on every other play. They've had different voices calling the signals and different styles running and passing behind them, but it's made no difference.

Whether it's Newton or Cobb, the quarterback jerseys have stayed clean.

"That's one of the things we really pride ourselves on is trying to protect the passer and run the football," Duncan said. "I feel like anytime you've got a lot of veteran guys that have played together and know what it takes and are on the same page communicating, then you have a chance to be a good offensive line."

The pressure was laid squarely on the offensive line when Hartline went down with an injury, but the Big Nasties never flinched. Defenses tried to key in on UK's ground attack and pressure Newton,  a true freshman, but UK's line has kept pushing and blocking.

Duncan said they have taken pride in their ability to keep the young Newton off the turf in a difficult learning scenario.

"I think anytime you get a young guy in that situation, it's our job to make him feel comfortable," Duncan said. "He's got a lot going through his head, so anytime he feels comfortable that he's going to be protected and we know what we're doing up front, that's going to take some pressure off him."

It's their job, and no position group is doing it better this year.

"When one goes down, we've got to pick it up and do even better," Heggins said. "I think they understand the importance of it and the sense of urgency."

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