All in a line: 5 returnees anchor offense



Amid the overhaul of talent at the skill positions on UK’s offense, one area that has stayed constant for head coach Joker Phillips and his offense is the offensive line.

The Cats return four starters from last year’s team: left tackle Chandler Burden, left guard Stuart Hines, center Matt Smith and right guard Larry Warford. Burden and Hines will all be entering their senior seasons at UK while Warford and Smith will be juniors in 2011.

“We know as an offensive line that we are going to have to be the leaders on the team,” Hines said. “For our offense to run smoothly, it’s going to be up to us because we have a lot of inexperience behind us, but we have a lot of talent and a lot of guys who can do great things as long as we take care of our job up front.”

The only newcomer to the guys up front this season will be right tackle Billy Joe Murphy, who succeeds former UK offensive tackle Brad Durham. Murphy, a senior, has started nine games through the first three years of his UK career, providing him with the experience needed to fit in with this veteran group on the line.

The stars of this group can be found at the guard position in both Hines and Warford. Warford received second-team all-Southeastern Conference honors after last season, and this summer was named a first-team preseason all-SEC offensive lineman. Hines, who received third-team all-SEC honors following his sophomore season in 2009, has been regarded by many, including Phillips, as the veteran leader of the offensive line.

“Stuart Hines has been the leader up front along with the other seniors, Jake Lanefski and Billy Joe Murphy,” Phillips said. “Larry Warford is a guy that will be one of the best that’s ever played here before he finishes.  So we feel really good about how far those guys have come. (Offensive line) Coach (Mike) Summers does an unbelievable job of making sure that those guys are together.”

“It’s really an honor to our whole O-line because I wouldn’t be as good as I was this past year without the guys next to me,” Warford added. “I’ll say that and I’ll defend that. Those guys help me out so much and me being named to those teams is just a testament to how great we are and how good of a group we are.”

One area of concern for this line will be depth. In contrast to the wealth of experience in the starting lineup, the reserves on the line will need to continue to progress and improve if they want to be ready to play in 2011. So far this summer, the offensive line has remained relatively healthy. Hines suffered a minor knee injury in early August, but the injury will not cause Hines to miss the team’s season opener against Western Kentucky on Sept. 1. Whether it be filling in for an injured player or preparing to take over the line beginning next year after the seniors have left, Phillips and Summers have made building depth on the line a priority.

“As those guys start each new segm­­­­ent of the season, spring ball and fall camp, and the offseason program, they all gain more and more experience about how to prepare,” Summers said. “They all understand more about what the scheme is, and certainly when our four seniors walk out of here at the end of the season then those guys are going to now have to step up, so there’s a lot of responsibility there.”

But for the team Phillips plans to put on the field this season, the offensive line seems to be the key to success on offense. As new UK quarterback Morgan Newton continues to learn the offense and build timing with the new faces at the skill positions around him, it will likely be up to the line to keep defenders at bay and allow the offense to find a rhythm and move the football down the field.

“We’ve been saying for a couple years that the strength of this football team offensively will be our offensive line, and well, I’m now happy and proud to say that they should be the strength of the program on offense,” Phillips said. “We’ve got four out of the five back, working really, really good together, communicate.  They did a lot of things this summer on their own and getting themselves prepared.”