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Last season it was UK football head coach Joker Phillips’ “big-nasties,” aka the offensive linemen, who were supposed to help take the team forward. Little did he or any fan know that nagging injuries would make them a weakness.
Now come and gone, the Cats are making the transition from all that experience on the front line to many new faces in addition to a couple of mainstays.
Part of that experience is junior Larry Warford whose leadership abilities have been praised by Phillips in saying he has been vocal on the field.
“He’s pretty much the glue at this point,” freshman offensive tackle Darrian Miller said.
A time conflict with student teaching for junior center Matt Smith on Wednesdays will keep him from practicing. Warford will take his place on those days.
“What we will do is we’ll move Larry Warford into center, which is probably his natural position,” Phillips said during his spring practice news conference.
Offensive line coach Mike Summers said Warford knows the offense well enough that he can execute, but the transition will be bumpy.
“It’s hard on him because everything happens differently and he has to make calls that he never made at guard,” Summers said. “It’s just understanding exactly what he has to do and get comfortable with it.”
Once fall arrives and the season begins, Summers said Warford getting reps at center will help provide depth that the position has never had.
“I think in the long run that will be an advantage for us when we get into the season — 12 games and all the banging on bodies that’s going on inside there — if something were to happen he could bounce in there and play for us,” he said.
Sophomore tackle Kevin Mitchell, Miller, and guards Teven Eatmon-Nared and Zach West will accompany the experience of Warford and Smith in the trenches.
“Now we get Zach West, Teven (Eatmon-Nared) to get first team reps playing beside Larry. Both of them will be playing beside Larry and playing beside the two tackles they’ll be playing with also. We’re using that as a plus, not a negative,” Joker Phillips said.
Learning every part of the offense is a lot to handle, West said.
“I wasn’t up there with the ones as much last year so (I’m) just trying to learn from the guys that were,” West said. “Just trying to get all the checkdowns and plays perfectly.”
But he said now that he’s been given the chance, it’s a huge honor to have the opportunity to be one of the guys who gets to replace the holes left by recent departures.
Some of the help that West has received has come from his elder teammate Warford.
“Every drill I can I get in there with Larry (Warford),” he said. “He’s probably the best lineman on the team and he’s a great person to learn from.”
In dealing with the struggles of the turnovers from last season to the new group of linemen, Summers said of West, “Zach’s kind of fighting for his life in there trying to figure out where to go.”
Phillips at his news conference prior to spring practice said West and Miller “kind of cling together.” He even noted that the two had been going fishing together.
Such a bond can translate to improved play on the field.
“They do have that bond. I’m hoping that starts to develop into good line play. Right now we’re still searching for some calls and answers of understanding technique inside,” Summers said, but “once they both progress further into the offense then I think their relationship will start to help them a little bit more in terms of communication.”
Of the two, Summers said getting playing time last season has helped Miller grasp an understanding of what to do in practice, putting him further ahead of West.
Miller said the move to full-time starter has provided more pressure, but it’s nothing he can’t handle.
“Learning the offense” has been one of the hardest parts of the transition to start, Miller said.
“You see it on the board and then you have to be able to translate what you see on the field, and that’s pretty difficult because if it doesn’t look the exact same it throws it off a little bit,” he said. “The translation from the film room to the field is probably the hardest part.”
As a whole, Summers said he believes it will take a while for the players to communicate and become a “cohesive group,” but at such an early stage it is simply the basics they are trying to get down.
“Technical development is always an issue in the offensive line. Footwork and hand placement and landmarks become critical in everything that you do. That always improves with the more experience you have inside,” he said. “We’re just in that real rough stage of spring right now where we need to learn our plays better and be better in executing them.”