LEXINGTON, Ky. — In a wild fit of uncharacteristic Kentucky football optimism, many believed the Wildcats might seamlessly overcome significant losses from an offensive line that was truly formidable in 2016 and keep mashing opponents up front in 2017. Two uncomfortably close victories over Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky later, we know better.
After rushing for just 78 yards (2.2 per carry) in Week 1, UK managed only 52 yards (3.7 per carry) by halftime Saturday against the Colonels, an FCS team that went 3-8 last season. So what the heck happened to an offense that rumbled for 3,000 yards on the ground in 2016?
“You’d like to think you’re going to pick right back up where you left off — or be even better — but it’s new bodies,” offensive line coach John Schlarman said.
Turns out, losing a four-year starting center to graduation and massive starting left tackle to a preseason ACL injury can cause real problems. Those losses and a turned ankle for new starting center Bunchy Stallings in the opener created a game of musical chairs that has too often left at least one lineman looking like he just had his seat yanked out from under him.
“We’ve got to find our best five,” coordinator Eddie Gran said after Kentucky erased a third-quarter deficit and escaped with a 27-16 win over EKU. “Fast.”
The Wildcats started the same five offensive linemen over the final eight games of last season: from left to right, Cole Mosier, Nick Haynes, Jon Toth, Stallings and Kyle Meadows. There was comfort in that continuity.
But Kentucky opened this season with Meadows moving from right to left tackle, Logan Stenberg taking over at left guard, Stallings replacing Toth at center, Haynes moving from left to right guard and George Asafo-Adjei at right tackle. Then Saturday, it was a whole other look: Sophomore Landon Young started a t left tackle, Haynes moved from guard to center because Stallings was hobbled from the opener, Asafo-Adjei slid back inside to guard and Meadows was back at right tackle.
Eastern Kentucky took advantage of the shuffling to the tune of eight tackles for loss, three sacks and several quarterback pressures. The Colonels also benefitted from Haynes — who has played tackle, guard and center in his UK career — blowing up a fourth-and-1 with one bad snap and nearly sailing another over QB Stephen Johnson’s head.
“With the injuries, it’s definitely fair to say” the offensive line has struggled more than expected, coach Mark Stoops admitted Saturday. “It does weaken you some. Have confidence in the guys behind, but it just hurts your depth, it hurts your rotation. There’s injuries, we’re moving guys around, guys get banged up.”
And yet …
Stoops went on to point out that Kentucky still found a way to produce 436 yards, 200-plus both rushing and passing, as Johnson found enough time to zip a few perfect deep balls and star tailback Benny Snell finally busted loose for 100 rushing yards in the second half.
“If you remember, last year was the same,” Stoops said, “and they did get better as the year went on.”
It’s easy to forget a meager beginning after the way the Wildcats finished last fall. But UK averaged just 95 rushing yards and allowed nine sacks in the first two weeks of 2016, then rushed for 200-plus eight times and allowed a total of 19 sacks over the final 11 games.
And remember, last year’s early struggles contributed to an 0-2 start. This time, Kentucky is 2-0, warts and all. So Schlarman isn’t ready to push the panic button.
He has recruited more coveted offensive linemen to Lexington than any coach in recent memory, and he trusts that they will grow into their new or bigger roles. But as Kentucky prepares to open SEC play next week — first at South Carolina, then back home against nemesis Florida — they no longer have the luxury of easing into it.
“These guys are going to be fine,” Schlarman said. “There’s still a lot of things we’ve got to get better at, but when you compare this year’s team up front compared to where we were last year at this time, I feel like we’re creating an identity a little bit earlier. Last year was more or less Game 3 before that came to fruition.”