There is a lot of good news for football in Kentucky. The Wildcats enter October ranked No. 7 in the nation, the highest they have held since 1977. QB Will Levis is one of the nation’s top performers at his position and he has a talented group of pass catchers. Kentucky’s defense was quite strong and kept opponents uncomfortable for most of the first month of the season.
The bad news? That would start with the offensive line.
In recent years, Kentucky’s offensive line, dubbed the Big Blue Wall, has been one of the best in the nation. The offensive line brought several players into the NFL (5 draft picks in the last 3 drafts) and helped Kentucky ride into the top ranks in the sport with a tenacious ground attack and opportunistic defense. For the past 3 seasons, Kentucky has averaged more than 5 yards per carry and not allowed more than 25 sacks in a season.
This year – admittedly without running back Chris Rodriguez Jr., who returns next week – UK are 123rd in rushing yards (81.5 per game), 125th in yards per carry (2.4) and 129th in sacks allowed (16). The Big Blue Wall was more like a Big Blue Sieve. Can UK fix it in a hurry? And how did it get here?
Some changes in the group were inevitable. In 2020, veteran offense coach John Schlarman died of cancer mid-season. When Schlarman passed away mid-season, Kentucky replaced him with former South Carolina assistant Eric Wolford. Wolford had been in Lexington for a season and was leaving town in such a hurry when Nick Saban called that many veterans of the Kentucky football scene still harbor more than a shred of resentment for the unpopular Wolford. Kentucky signed Zach Yenser from the San Francisco 49ers for the 2022 campaign. Still, going through 3 coaching positions in 3 seasons was concerning.
Kentucky hoped LSU transfer Dare Rosenthal, who was a plug-and-play starter last season, would stay on for a super senior season. Rosenthal didn’t do this and entered the NFL Draft, where he was unselected. There was some flirting with transfer portal guys like Vandy Transfer Tyler Steen, who Wolford recruited for Alabama instead. But at the end of the day, Kentucky had to open the season and replace its two starting tackles.
JUCO tackle Jeremy Flax, who played sparingly in 2021, received 1 starting job. Redshirt rookie David Wohlabaugh Jr. had the opening start at the other tackle spot. The results were so shaky that Kentucky moved guard Kenneth Horsey to attack Wohlabaugh’s spot. That has resulted in the Wildcats primarily playing converted guard Eli Cox at center, Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning as guard, and redshirt newcomer Jager Burton at the other guard spot.
Longer term, 5-star recruit Kiyaunta Goodwin will likely intervene at a tackle spot. But Goodwin, who played at 3 different high schools and finished his high school career against less than impressive competition in Indiana, is still very raw. Cox excelled on the inside line of guard in 2021 but had some troubles after moving to the middle. Kentucky mixed in a few other reserves, but didn’t find a solid #5.
Getting Rodriguez back should help the offense. Unlike the streakers who have played in his absence, Rodriguez is a physical defender, the kind of guy who flops forward for the extra yard or 2 and drives the stack for an extra yard or 2. Kentucky has some standout tight ends and has used them occasionally as oversized passing targets. But pass protection could be better served if these guys stay inside to help pick up pass rushers.
Mark Stoops didn’t show much concern after the win in Northen Illinois.
“I think they did some good things,” Stoops said of his offensive line on a night when UK rushed for 2.9 yards per carry and Levis was sacked five times. Stoops noted the offense was “pretty explosive,” but admitted, “We need to finish better.”
Later in his comments, Stoops may have been a bit more outspoken.
“I think we want to be a little more consistent in the running game,” Stoops admitted, before chuckling and commenting, “Everyone appreciates the running game now. Five years ago, none of you knew that…”
Indeed, Kentucky has transitioned to a big passing game and could advance past the Stoops ten-foot blue, a dust cloud and a defensive stand. However, this ability to transition could be determined by improved offensive line performance. Another special season in Kentucky may well depend on repairing some significant cracks in this Big Blue Wall.