Taking Center Stage: Offensive Line battles continue

Much speculation went into the marquee position battle about which UK quarterback should be taking the snaps under center, yet the debate over who will be delivering those snaps is just as intense.

UK head coach Joker Phillips branded the position battle at center, which began as a four-player competition, as one of the best of fall camp.

Junior Jake Lanefski and sophomore Matt Smith are the remaining candidates for the starting center position.

“(The competition is) really mentally challenging with the heat, with the pain,” Lanefski said. “Me and Matt are really good friends but we both want that spot obviously.”

Senior Marcus Davis, who started last season’s opener against Miami (Ohio) but then suffered a season-ending ankle injury, and redshirt freshman Sam Simpson were the other players initially in contention for the starting job at center.

Smith played in six games last year as the backup to the departed Jorge Gonzalez.

Lanefski has four career starts at guard, but made the transition from guard to center in the spring. He was forced to sit out contact drills in the spring while he continued to rehabilitate a knee injury he sustained five games into last season. The injury is making for a tougher learning curve, as Lanefski had only rotated in at center a few times before his injury.

“I was a little slow at first with my snaps,” Lanefski said. “I’m getting used to being in a hurry and snapping, I was fumbling a few times, but now I’m starting to get that down and the knee feels great.”

Phillips said that Smith has demonstrated “consistency,” whereas Lanefski has displayed “nastiness” in practice.

“I think it’s just nervousness, actually,” Lanefski said of his perceived nasty streak. “I think it’s just being nervous about being in my spot at the right time. I want to get there as fast as possible and if someone is there I’m going to hit them as hard as I can.”

Aside from the battle at center, UK’s offensive line is not necessarily brand new with nine lettermen on hand, but the line is certainly retooled. Junior Stuart Hines, who is switching from right guard to left guard, is UK’s only full-time returning starter on the line.

Graduated are Gonzalez, left tackle Zipp Duncan, left guard Christian Johnson and Justin Jeffries, who started nine games at right tackle.

Last year’s offensive line helped the Cats average 191.2 rushing yards per game, the team’s best output since 1995. UK also ranked in the nation’s top 25 in rushing offense, fewest quarterback sacks allowed and fewest tackles for loss allowed.

“We’re starting to come together as unit and play more as a whole offensive line,” Hines said.  “We need to be playing together, staying on the same page with each other and bringing intensity to everything we do.”

Senior Brad Durham, a part-time starter at right tackle the past two seasons, will look to start full-time at that position, while sophomore Larry Warford will likely start at right guard.

At left tackle, junior Billy Joe Murphy, who started three games in 2008, and junior Chandler Burden, who transitioned from defensive end in the spring, are battling for the responsibility of protecting their quarterback’s blind side.

“I think the offensive line needs to be a unit, a team within a team,” Phillips said.

Quick Hits: Offensive Line

Probable Starters

Left tackle: Chandler Burden/Billy Joe Murphy

Left guard: Stuart Hines

Center: Jake Lanefski/Matt Smith

Right guard: Larry Warford

Right tackle: Brad Durham/Billy Joe Murphy

Who To Keep An Eye On

Hines: The only full-time returning starter from a solid O-line last season, he will be counted on for leadership.

Biggest Question

With so many starters gone, can a bunch of new faces gel in time to replicate last year’s success at the line of scrimmage?