Offensive line surpasses expectations


UK played Western Kentucky University in Lexington, Ky., on 9/11/10. Photo by Latara Appleby

When offensive line coach Mark Summers arrived at UK after the 2009 season, he inherited a position group that had been decimated by graduation. Four seniors departed, leaving Summers with plenty of questions and only one returning starter.

But through the first five games of the season, the offensive line has been one of the strongest units on the team, leading the Southeastern Conference with two sacks allowed while paving the way for just under 200 rushing yards per game. Those numbers have come even though junior guard Stuart Hines, the most experienced player on the line, has missed the last two games with an ankle sprain.

The biggest challenge for Summers was cobbling together a group that had only played sparingly together. Senior tackle Brad Durham saw significant playing time over the last two years, and sophomore guard Larry Warford earned SEC All-Freshman team honors last year, but the rest of the line saw only limited action last year.

Even some members of the line didn’t know what the results would look like once they got on the field. But to this point, they’ve had plenty to boast about.

“It definitely is outperforming our expectations,” sophomore center Matt Smith said. “To start out with, we didn’t know how it was going to turn out because none of us had really played together when spring came around and when we started into fall. But as we started practicing more together and getting to know each other, we definitely made a turnaround, and I think we’re playing pretty well.”

Perhaps no player on the line had less experience entering this year than junior tackle Chandler Burden, who spent the 2009 season battling for playing time at defensive end with Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham. Burden started two games early in 2009 at defensive end but saw his reps go down over the course of the year and finished with just nine tackles.

When Summers went looking for a new left tackle, he focused on Burden, an offensive lineman in high school. Warford said he was initially skeptical of how well he would do after making a position change, but those worries were quickly put to rest. He said Burden is far better as an offensive.

“When he started playing, I was like, ‘Man, this guy’s going to be good,’ ” Warford said. “He progressed so quickly. Quicker than anybody I’ve ever seen at any position.”

If there are still questions surrounding the offensive line, they usually focus on the depth of the unit. Junior Billy Joe Murphy has filled in ably in Hines’ absence and has also contributed at both tackle  tackle positions, but beyond that the Cats are still looking for capable reserves.

“Our depth at six, and maybe seven spots is pretty good,” Summers said. “But I think we start to experience some drop-off once we get below that. A couple of injuries would still make a huge impact on our success right now.”

But the most encouraging thing for UK’s linemen is that they know they’ll be able to build on this success going forward. Durham is a senior, but the other five linemen should all return in 2011. After opening this year as a question mark, Warford said the linemen talk a lot about how strong the unit could be next season.

“The key to successful offensive line play is the cohesiveness of that group because they all rely on each other,” Summers said. “When you have to make a call and there’s 90,000 people screening and you can’t hardly understand what anybody’s saying, those things just don’t automatically happen. They happen over time with experience.”