O-Line the Laying the Building Blocks for UK's Success
Offensive linemen are accustomed to anonymity, at least until things go awry.
They do their jobs well and a running back sprints through a big hole or a quarterback has enough time to hit a wide receiver on a deep ball. Either way, the praise is directed to the players who make the big play, not necessarily the ones who make it possible.
Kentucky’s offensive linemen are experiencing something a little different these days.
Sure, Boom Williams and Benny Snell, Jr. are the faces of a suddenly dominant Wildcat ground game, but the role of the big guys paving the way is not being ignored in the slightest.
“You have to give that credit to the offensive line, a big, big piece of it,” Mark Stoops said after UK rolled up 377 yards rushing against Missouri on Saturday. “I really noticed them finishing blocks. I saw them really playing physical and enjoying that.”
Behind that offensive line, UK is averaging 261 rushing yards in winning five of six games, the lone hiccup coming on the road against top-ranked Alabama. The Cats (5-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) have surged all the way to fifth in the SEC in rushing, but some metrics are even more bullish on the performance of UK’s offensive line entering a matchup with Georgia (4-4, 2-4 SEC) on Saturday.
“They are playing extremely physical,” Stoops said. “That group is playing selfless, they come to the sidelines and sit there and talk to each other and make adjustments. They talk about the things they are seeing and ways to improve and adjustments to be made."
Football Outsiders ranks UK’s line fifth nationally in adjusted line yards, a statistic that tries to separate the ability of a running back from the ability of an offensive line. UK is also third nationally in power success rate, converting 87.5 percent of its runs on third and fourth downs of two yards or less into first downs or touchdowns.
“It feels good to be appreciated, but we’ve always come out and tried to run the ball and protect the quarterback,” said senior center Jon Toth, the group’s leader. “It’s not like we’re anything different than we have been. We’re just trying to do it as best we can every week.”
In other words, the offensive line isn’t approaching things any differently than they did when they were getting attention for the wrong reasons in seasons past. The difference now is the group has built some experience playing together and the depth Stoops and offensive line coach John Schlarman have been working toward for years.
“We knew we had good players and you are starting to see quite a few of those guys have a lot of game experience,” Stoops said. “They have grown up well. And not all of them, we are mixing in some redshirt freshmen and mixing in some true freshmen. It is easier to do when you have other experienced quality players around them. It is nice to see that rotation right now. It keeps those guys healthy and keeps them healthy down the stretch.”
UK is now playing a regular line rotation of nine players, with only Toth in for most every series. The impact of the player called the quarterback of UK’s offensive line cannot be overstated.
“Jon Toth’s leadership’s been huge,” Schlarman said. “Him being a four-year guy and really taking the reins and the leadership this offseason has been really big. When you got a guy like that working as hard as he works, doing all the things right, it rubs off on a lot of guys.”
It’s certainly rubbed off on Nick Haynes, who loves the physical reputation he and his fellow linemen have cultivated.
“We’re taking a lot of pride in it,” Haynes said. “It’s really our little thing. We make the things go. We see big holes and we’re proud of that. We see people get pancakes and we’re proud of that. We take pride in what we do, for sure.”
To properly take pride in that is to make sure it continues. On that front, UK’s line has a group of coaches who will make sure that happens.
“They’ve worked really hard at the stuff we talked about this summer,” Eddie Gran said. “It’s like I told them today, you know, when we talked about our message from Coach Stoops: If they think they’ve arrived then we’re in trouble. And we got to keep that edge. But yes, I am proud of them and their success. But we’ve got a long way to go.”