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Linemen finding their feet - and dropping pounds - in high-tempo offense

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John Schlarman is in his first season coaching offensive linemen at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Schlarman is in his first season coaching offensive linemen at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Losing weight is not typically high on the priority list for offensive linemen. Given the size and strength of the defenders who line up across from them each down, mass is almost always an asset.

But as Darrian Miller has gone through his first spring practice in Kentucky's new offense, the pounds have melted off. After working for so long to gain or maintain weight, Miller has dropped 10 pounds without even thinking about it.

"I didn't feel like I wanted to or needed to do that at all," Miller said. "It just sort of happened when we got out here with this fast-paced offense."

Offensive line coach John Schlarman - a former UK offensive lineman - says there's no reason to sound the alarm about the shrinking left tackle. Having spent the last five seasons coaching linemen under offensive coordinator Neal Brown, Miller - now 6-foot-5, 285 pounds - is not a unique case.

"It's very high-paced," Schlarman said. "These guys burn a lot of calories out here in these practices."

If he needed any additional evidence, Schlarman needs look no further than Miller's play in 13 practices so far this spring to reassure himself. Lining up most often opposite Za'Darius Smith - a 6-foot-6, 257-pound defensive end - Miller has more than held his own.

"Darrian Miller, I've been very, very pleased with him this spring," Schlarman said. "He's really had a good spring. He's played very, very consistent. I know we still have two practices left so I hope I don't jinx him, but he's been real consistent all spring long, come to work every day with a great attitude and done a great job on that left side."

Miller, who played well as a sophomore at left tackle in 2012, has shown himself to be a natural in UK's quick-tempo attack. The Lexington, Ky., native had a reputation as a cerebral player over his first two seasons, but reports the speed of the new offense helps him because he has less time to think, paradoxical as it may sound.

"I like to play fast," Miller said. "I think best when I don't have a lot of time, if that makes sense. Sometimes when you have more time to think about stuff, you start second-guessing yourself and you start to get confused, things start blurring together. When you actually know the offense, things sort of pop up and I guess that's what you're supposed to do."

Having established himself as a solid performer this spring, Miller is being asked by his coaches to step up in other areas. When something needed in either of the past two years, Matt Smith and Larry Warford would be the ones saying it. With those two having exhausted their eligibility - though they are still fixtures at practice as they pursue professional careers - the staff wants Miller to help fill the void.

"They've told me several times that they wanted me to step up and be more of a vocal leader," Miller said. "I'm not really all that big on yelling and screaming; I usually try to lead by example. But that's something different that I'm trying to get used to."

Miller is a logical candidate to move into a leadership role because of his experience, something many of his fellow linemen lack.

At right tackle, Jordan Swindle has gotten the majority of first team reps. The true sophomore played in 11 games, but only as a reserve or on special teams. Junior Teven Eatmon-Nared and senior Kevin Mitchell have worked at the two guard spots, but only Mitchell has starting experience and that was at right tackle. At center, redshirt freshman Zach Myers is ahead of the pack.

Left out of that group, but not because he is not a potential starter, is Zach West. The redshirt sophomore started all 12 games last season next to Miller at left guard, but had offseason shoulder surgery. Because of his recovery, West missed the first two weeks of spring and is still working his way back into the mix.

"Zach's coming along," Schlarman said. "I'm proud of him. Just coming off of surgery and getting out here in spring ball and getting some work. There's a lot of guys that could have just kind of gone through non-contact in the spring and probably nobody would have said anything. But Zach's not that type of guy."

Adding West to the conversation at guard and potentially even center, Schlarman sees his group of contenders.

"Right now I would have to say we've got a starting six," Schlarman said. "We've gotta figure out how that six turns into five."

Those six linemen still have the Blue/White Spring Game to make their cases, but final decisions on starters aren't likely to be made before the fall. However, work in the summer could be what lays the foundation the five linemen that start on Aug. 13 vs. Western Kentucky.

"We're nowhere near the shape we need to be in to run this offense for four quarters right now," Schlarman said. "So the summer program is very important for us up front.

"Now they have a little taste of what this is all about. I think they'll really understand the importance of getting into good shape."

Not only do the linemen have a taste for what will be demanded of them next season, but they also have a pretty clear idea of what they could do to opposing defensive lines in the new offense, even if they might be a bit trimmer than a season ago.

"Watching our defensive linemen, I know it's going to take a toll," Miller said. "It's not something that's easy to keep up with. It hurts. It hurts to say the least."

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