LEXINGTON — Kentucky lost three starters from its offensive line last year, and assistant coach Mike Summers spent spring practice trying to get returning starters Matt Smith and Larry Warford in rhythm working with new starters Darrian Miller, Kevin Mitchell and Zach West.
“It was good. Spring practice is always a great opportunity from a coaching standpoint to be able to layer foundation work, technical development,” Summers said. “Being able to work on things that need to be cemented in their muscle memory so that they understand how to put their body in the right position without thinking about it is what you want to do in the spring. We got to spend a lot of time with that kind of stuff, and we needed it because we have a lot of work still to do.”
Here’s more of what Summers had to say about the offensive line going into the summer break:
Question: How did new starting tackle Mitchell, a junior, do?
Summers: “Kevin did a really good job. He has paid his dues as a backup player for a couple of years and has learned how to practice, learn how to perform. He has gotten stronger. Now this is his time to step up into a starting role.
“He has done a really good job at tackle and really developed his movement skills well in the offseason. He has a much better understanding of the overall offensive concept. I was very pleased with what he did.”
Question: How has West, a redshirt freshman, reacted to being No. 1 at the other tackle position?
Summers: “Unlike Kevin, he has not paid his dues yet. He is being pressed into action pretty quickly. Every day that he comes out here he experiences something new and something that he has to understand and commit to memory so that mistakes that are made the first two days of practice are not made the last two days of practice.
“We are still in the process of developing his technique, developing his overall understanding of our offensive concept. I see great signs of what he can be and flashes of brilliance that gives me a new motivation to try and make sure he learns all the things he needs to in order to show all that.”
Question: What is West’s biggest strength as a player?
Summers: “I think it is his toughness and his character and just his commitment to trying to do things the right way. It is very difficult for any of them to step into that role and play early because so much happens so fast.
“I think it is still is happening fast for Zach right now, but he has an understanding of the offense and he does understand how I want it to be. We are working to gain on the things that lead to consistent execution.”
Question: How will the experience Miller got as a true freshman help him as a sophomore starting at guard?
Summers: “I think it was a tremendous experience to get him right now in preparation for this season. It was very difficult for him last year to have him just thrown into the deep end of the swimming pool and tell him to start paddling. But his confidence level right now from being on the field and knowing what the speed of the game is going to be like has really helped him in his preparation for next season.”
Question: Are Miller and West almost too nice to be thrust into starting roles so quickly in the Southeastern Conference?
Summers: “They have earned that and worked their way into those positions. They are really great kids with tremendous character. I am blessed because I am in a room full of those kind of guys. I am in a room full of guys that have solid character, care about the University of Kentucky and want to be great players.
“Regardless of the talent level of that group, they are a great group of guys to work with and they motivate me as a coach because they have that kind of character.”
Question: With center Smith and all-SEC guard Warford, is the biggest thing just getting them comfortable with new players around them?
Summers: “The real struggle in coaching is that you are always dealing with guys that are on different levels of development, especially in the offensive line. I have always talked about how cohesive those five guys have to be, and each year you mix and match and pull guys out and injuries force you to mix and match and pull guys out. When that happens, there is a fundamental period that takes the adjustment of those guys playing together.
“Larry and Matt are in that phase right now where they are learning to play with different guys and the communication suffers in those situations and that is what spring practice was for and what fall camp is for. Clearly they have a lot of things they can work on to get better at, too.”
Question: What about the depth in the offensive line this year?
Summers: “I am concerned right now that our depth has not been on the field. If we start having a rash of injuries, we are going to be putting players out there who don’t have a lot of experience. I am very encouraged by the freshmen group coming in.
“I think there is a good group coming in there, but we missed a couple of classes in the offensive line. The year that I got here there was not an offensive lineman signed. The next year there was one. We have had a couple of guys like Sam Simpson and Dave Ulinski that because of injury have been taken out of that group. I am concerned about the depth of this group, and we are going to have to stay healthy to be effective.”
Question: Could there be another Miller out of necessity in the incoming freshman class?
Summers: “There very well could be. So much the better if that is the case. It has been a long time since I have had a freshman have to play for me. Last year was the first time in a long time. I would rather it not be the second time in a long time, but I am very encouraged by those guys and they certainly will fill in and be part of our depth for next year.”
Question: How much does it help having an experienced center like Smith, who has started the last two years?
Summers: “If you had to dedicate experience you would want it to be at that position. That guy has to make all the calls, especially in Smith’s case because he started two years for us. That guy’s personality is so solid and his understanding of our offense is so solid that it is a calming effect for everyone else up there.
“He is not going to panic trying to figure out what he is looking at and getting everybody lined up. Having a guy there with patience, understanding and experience helps that whole group in their confidence.”
Question: Is there a better offensive lineman in the SEC than Warford?
Summers: “There is not one better. His understanding of offensive football and offensive line play is so instinctive. He just has such a knack of understanding the patterns of defensive movement inside that he puts himself in the right position. For 325 pounds, he is such a great athlete. Great feet. He puts his intensity and passion on top of that and that equals a great player.”
Question: Did you know immediately he could be this good?
Summers: “You could see that he had the traits to be that, but like I told him at that point there are thousands of offensive linemen that have those traits and there are very few that can take those traits and turn them into something special. Through his hard work and understanding of what he is being taught he has been able to develop and grow and take on the personality of a great player.
“When you watch him prepare himself for practice and games, you see a player that really understands that this is a commitment to passion to play in the offensive line, and he has that understanding and certainly has the physical tools to go along with that.”