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Posts from Monday, April 6

Senior Christian Johnson is expected to add depth and experience to the offensive line after redshirting last year.

Senior Christian Johnson is expected to add depth and experience to the offensive line after redshirting last year.

Offensive line preview: Changed Johnson could be a factor

Posted at 4:13 p.m. EDT – Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

The offensive line is deep, experienced and talented. Minus Garry Williams, it’s nearly the same allotment of offensive linemen that prompted UK Coach Rich Brooks a year ago to say it’s his best offensive line since he’s been at UK.

But that proclamation never quite lived up to expectations in 2008. The Wildcats were stout in pass protection – UK ranked fourth in the nation in fewest sacks allowed last season – but they failed to open up many holes for the running game that was supposed to be UK’s biggest offensive strength.

With nearly the same ensemble of talent back on the line, UK is expected to return to its 2007 form that helped UK’s running game churn out more than 2,000 yards.

Although UK lost Williams, an All-Southeastern Conference performer, the Wildcats return veterans Zipp Duncan, Jorge Gonzalez and Justin Jeffries to go along with several young and upcoming linemen in Stuart Hines, Jake Lanefski and Dave Ulinski.

Duncan, who originally came to UK as a tight end before moving to left guard, will again be switching positions. Duncan has started the spring No. 1 on the depth chart at the left tackle position to fill in for the departed Williams.

“This is something I hope will work and we will see as we go through,” UK Coach Rich Brooks said. “I believe it will and he certainly has the athletic ability and talent to be an outstanding left tackle.

“He has competed every day in practice for the last two years against Myron Pryor and Corey Peters. In one sense, he might be relieved to get out on the edge where he is not going to face the size and explosive power of the inside players in this game. He was always outweighed and in the tackle position, he won’t be outweighed very often.”

Duncan, a 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior, said he was approached in the winter about moving to left tackle to shore up the left side of the line. Duncan said he’s practiced at left tackle at summer camp but admitted that playing left tackle in the SEC is a whole different ballgame.

In terms of size, Duncan won’t have to do much adjusting there. The biggest change, Duncan said, will be adapting his technique to the speed rushers of the SEC.

“It should be natural for him because he’s a pretty good athlete,” offensive line coach Jimmy Heggins said.

Duncan hasn’t nailed down the left tackle spot by any means, but he has been getting the majority of the snaps with the first team in spring ball. Given Duncan’s track record – he’s started 26 straight games at either right guard or left guard – the coaches don’t seem to be too concerned with the move.

The same can be said for the center and right tackle positions. After starting all 13 games in 2008, Gonzalez appears to have the center spot locked down. Jeffries is listed third on spring season depth chart at the right tackle position but only because he’s recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and is sitting out the contact portions of spring practice.

Uncertainty seems to weigh most at the two guard positions. Sophomore Jake Lanefski and redshirt freshman Dave Ulinski are battling for the top spot on the right side, but neither has been close to 100 percent to start the spring.

Brooks said Ulinski has been sick the past few days and missed most of practice on Monday and Saturday. Laneski tweaked his hamstring in practice on Monday, the same hamstring he had problems with in the offseason.

Meanwhile, sophomore Stuart Hines is listed No. 1 at the left guard spot, but that’s far from written in stone. Behind him is quite possibly the biggest offensive line story – senior Christian Johnson.

Johnson has been up and down more than the stock market. Two seasons ago, Johnson was primed to become one of the more experienced and talented offensive linemen on the UK front. He started 15 games between 2006-07, but Johnson’s career came crumbling down last season.

A host of problems, namely grade problems, weight issues and a back injury, sidelined Johnson early in the season and he ended up redshirting for the 2008 season.

“It was unbelievably frustrating,” Johnson said. “Honestly, it felt like my life was just out of order. I couldn’t sleep, nothing was going right and everything was just wrong. I really needed the support and I got the support from some of my teammates. … Looking back on it now, there were times that I just wanted to forget it.”

And Johnson said that the thought of quitting definitely crossed his mind a couple of times. Johnson said even though he was offered another chance, he knew it would be difficult to get his grades back up and get back into the good graces of the coaching staff.

With the support of his teammates and brother, linebacker Micah Johnson, Christian Johnson has returned to the team and is expected to be a factor on the offensive line.

“There were some times where I could have lost my mind if it wasn’t for my brother,” Johnson said. “It was like I was living through my brother. Watching him playing was almost like watching me play.”

Johnson said he’s a changed man. He said he’s learned to listen to people more and learned that without getting it done in the classroom, there is no football. So far, Brooks said Johnson has done everything academically to this point that he needs to.

“He’s doing some good things (but) with his time off he’s ballooned back up on me,” Brooks said of the 325-pound senior (who looks a little heavier than that). “He needs to lose some weight, but he’s obviously a very strong guy in there and has experience, although he’s got to get back to moving quicker and a little bit more light on his feet.”

Johnson took a decent bulk of snaps with the second team Monday at both the right and left guard positions. He’s listed second on the depth chart behind Hines, but his experience and potential are hard to overlook. If Johnson can stay healthy and keep it together off the field, he could get significant playing time in the fall.

Either way, this is the final chance for the embattled player to make his mark at UK.

“I’ve learned not to take anything for granted,” Johnson said. “As quick as it comes, it can go just as quick.”


Baseball postponed Tuesday; Wednesday’s time moved up

Posted at 4:01 p.m. EDT – Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

The baseball team’s game at Western Kentucky on Tuesday has been postponed due to the threat of inclement weather. The game, originally scheduled at 7 p.m. in Bowling Green, Ky., will be rescheduled at a later date.

Wednesday’s game at Cliff Hagan Stadium, which is also against Western Kentucky, has been moved to 4 p.m. The game was originally scheduled to be played at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.


Current Cats in the MLB

Posted at 1:19 p.m. EDT – Eric Lindsey, UK Media Relations

Today marks one of my favorite days of the year – opening day of the baseball season.

No matter what team you follow or how closely you watch baseball, there is nothing quite like opening day in the big leagues. But what does that have to do with a Kentucky athletics blog?

Well, given that it’s opening day and this a UK blog, I thought I would tie the two together and provide a rundown of current UK players on an opening day major league roster. The list isn’t long – just three Wildcats are on an MLB roster – but you’d be hard pressed to find a trio of players with resumes more impressive than this list of players:

  • Brandon Webb will get the nod as the opening day starter for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 2006 National League Cy Young Award winner has arguably had the best three-year run of any pitcher in the major leagues, going 56-25 since 2006. Webb, who was taken by the Diamondbacks in the eighth round of the 2000 MLB Draft, has an 87-62 career record in the big leagues with a 3.24 ERA. After finishing first in the Cy Young Award voting in 2006, Webb has followed with a pair of second-place finishes in 2007 and 2008.
  • Few pitchers can say they’ve won a World Series ring. Even fewer can claim to have hit a home run in the Fall Classic. Joe Blanton did exactly that in last year’s World Series, belting his first career home run and first by a pitcher in the World Series since 1974. Blanton’s blast and stellar pitching in Game Four led the Phillies to their first championship since 1980. Blanton, who was picked in the first round by the Oakland Athletics in the 2002 MLB Draft, is 51-46 with a 4.24 ERA in the majors. He went 4-0 in 2008 after the Phillies acquired him in a trade from the As. He’s listed as the fourth starter on the Phillies’ opening day roster.
  • Scott Downs is quickly turning into one of the best setup men in the MLB. Downs, who is entering his fifth season with the Toronto Blue Jays, has become the go-to-guy in the seventh and eighth inning for Toronto. The lefty tossed 70.2 innings last year with a career-best 1.78 ERA. The season before that, Downs went 4-2 with a 2.17 ERA in 77 innings of work. Since entering the major leagues in 2000, Downs is 21-20 with a 4.01 ERA. He played for UK from 1995-97 before being drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the 1997 MLB Draft.

And although Kentucky has just three players in the majors, it has a wealth of players on the minor-league level that could make the jump in the next year or two. Since 2006 alone, 18 players have been selected in the MLB Draft, including seven players from the 2008 squad.