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Notebook: Offensive line a bright spot heading into South Carolina

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Center Matt Smith has anchored an offensine line that has allowed just four sacks in four games. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Center Matt Smith has anchored an offensive line that has allowed just four sacks in four games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Perhaps more than any position group on the roster, Kentucky's offensive line was a question mark heading into the 2012 season. Replacing three graduated starters with three new full-time starters - including a true sophomore and a redshirt freshman at left tackle and left guard - it was difficult to predict how the line would perform.

And that was before fans and media even had a full grasp on the fact that the Wildcats would be transitioning to a fast-paced, no-huddle offense.

Four games into the season, the offensive line has gone from a question mark to one of UK's greatest strengths. The Cats are 1-3 following a loss to Florida this weekend, but it's hard to pin much of that on the offensive front.

"I thought this offensive line did as good as any we've been around against the Florida team because we ran the ball for five yards a carry," head coach Joker Phillips said. "And they protected. I don't think we even got hit once at the quarterback position as we were delivering the football."

Through four games, the line has allowed just four sacks even though UK is passing the ball on 64-percent of its plays. The Cats' quarterbacks have been sacked just once per 44.5 pass attempts.

On other hand, the statistics - at least on the face of things - don't look so good for the ground game. UK is 13th in the Southeastern Conference in total rushing with 119.5 yards per game. Twice already this season the Cats have been held under 100 yards rushing, but that's partially a function of circumstance.

UK fell behind early against Louisville and Western Kentucky University, forcing the Cats into passing almost exclusively.  The Wildcats are eighth in the SEC in yards per attempt at 4.8 and are fresh off producing 5.0 yards a carry against a staunch Florida defense after being held to barely two yards against WKU.

"We were able to come out and be a lot more physical against Florida than we were against Western, so we felt pretty good about that as an offensive line overall," center Matt Smith said.

The offensive line will need all the good vibes it can get heading into what might be its toughest test of the season. South Carolina boasts a defense allowing under 10 points a game and a defensive line that has already rolled up 15 sacks.

"Watching this film on South Carolina so far, they're definitely the best we've played so far this season and very well could be throughout the entire season," Smith said. "They're very good defensively and they're taught well and they're very good at what they do."

The Gamecocks also allow just 2.0 yards per carry and feature former No. 1 overall recruit and potential future No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jadeveon Clowney.

"And talk about Clowney, I think one of the things the NCAA should do is issue every team two of those type of guys, to make everything even," Phillips said.

Backup quarterback headlines depth chart changes

For the first time this season, there is a new name listed under the "QB" heading on Kentucky's depth chart. Maxwell Smith is once again listed as the starter, but there are now two players listed as his backup: Morgan Newton and Jalen Whitlow.

Newton got the start on Saturday vs. Florida with Smith out due to a shoulder injury. With little time to prepare, the senior struggled, completing just 7-of-21 passes with three interceptions. He was eventually lifted for Whitlow - a true freshman - who was 1-for-6 for 12 yards in fourth-quarter duty.

Smith is still recovering from his injury and is termed questionable and "day-to-day" by Phillips, so the decision between Whitlow and Newton at backup could be a big one come Saturday. He will need a week of practice before he can make a final determination, but Phillips is leaning Whitlow's way right now.

"I don't know exactly if we go with Morgan or Jalen," Phillips said. "But I think Jalen would probably deserve (to start in Smith's place) based on the way we performed Saturday."

Phillips revealed on Monday that Whitlow has been in the process of being groomed for the backup role since after the Louisville game. Ultimately, the decision was made to go with Newton on Saturday due to experience.

"When Max went down, we just felt like (Whitlow) wasn't ready, wasn't quite ready to go in in that type of environment," Phillips said. "I've been down there when we put a freshman quarterback in there, and it's pretty tough."

Elsewhere on the depth chart, Jonathan George has moved into the top spot at tailback with CoShik Williams, Raymond Sanders and Dyshawn Mobley behind him. George has 265 yards from scrimmage in his last three games after not playing against Louisville.

There are also a couple changes to report on defense. Defensive tackle Tristian Johnson is a starter at defensive tackle with Mister Cobble recovering from injury. At cornerback, true freshman Cody Quinn moves into a starting role after filling in for Cartier Rice on Saturday and performing admirably.

"He played as well as any freshman I've ever been around," Phillips said. "The guy challenged receivers, made a huge play in the first series. He drove on a quick screen that he took on a blocker and ran through the blocker and made the play. We're excited about him."

Injury updates

As referenced earlier, Maxwell Smith is the most high-profile player dealing with injury this week. The decision was made for his long-term health to hold him out on Saturday after he reaggravated a sprain in the AC joint of his throwing shoulder against WKU. He has improved over the past week, but his status is still uncertain.

Joining Smith in the questionable category are CoShik Williams (hip strain), safety Ashely Lowery (head), Cartier Rice (thigh bruise) and right tackle Kevin Mitchell (ankle). Phillips expects Mitchell to be available, but Trevino Woods would likely go in his place if cannot, although Woods himself is dealing with an ankle injury.

Doubtful for Saturday are tight end Gabe Correll (hip flexor), linebacker/safety Josh Forrest (hip flexor) and Mister Cobble (infection). Cobble was admitted to the hospital with a joint infection on Friday, but has since been discharged. However, he ate very little last week which will likely prolong his recovery time.

SEC Network to carry UK-Mississippi State

Television selections for games on Oct. 6 were announced on Monday and Kentucky's game vs. Mississippi State will be at 12:21 p.m. on the SEC Network. Also, Saturday's game against South Carolina will be at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.

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