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Kentucky’s 2022 offensive line struggling to live up to the legacy of the Big Blue Wall

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The 2023 season is set to be Mark Stoops’ 11th as the Kentucky football coach.

The 2023 season is set to be Mark Stoops’ 11th as the Kentucky football coach. (Ryan C. Hermens/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS)

We should have expected this. Four starters gone. Two were NFL Draft picks. A third was the starting left tackle. One former starting guard is now starting at center. The other former starting guard is now playing tackle. Little wonder Kentucky football’s offensive line has started, should we say, slowly.

Now add the legacy the Big Blue Wall is expected to continue. Four Kentucky offensive linemen have been drafted over the last three years. There is the memory of John Schlarman, the late offensive line coach who built the BBW in the first place. There’s a new O-line coach, the second since Schlarman’s untimely passing, one with a new approach and a new scheme.

Mix in some early-season injuries and the current Big Blue Wall is a work in progress. Kentucky is 124th out of 131 FBS teams in sacks allowed, 122nd in rushing offense, 126th in average yards per rushing attempt.

“We’ve got to get that fixed and run the ball downhill,” Coach Mark Stoops said of the negative-yardage plays that marred UK’s 31-0 win over Youngstown State last Saturday. “There’s a big difference between second-and-7 and second-and-6 or second-and-12 or 13.”

Stoops also said this: “We’ve been through this before, even as recent as last year going through some ups and downs.”

Indeed, then-new offensive coordinator Liam Coen intended to install the zone running game scheme he learned with the Los Angeles Rams. After a slow start, however, Coen and Stoops decided to return to the power run game that previously worked so well. The result: Chris Rodriguez rushed for 1,379 yards in a balanced attack that helped propel the Cats to a 10-3 record.

This year, however, offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and offensive line coach Zach Yenser appear committed to the zone run game they learned under Kyle Shanahan with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.

“We had a discussion about that this morning with Rich and Zach,” Stoops said Monday, “and we’ll continue to get better at it.”

There’s another important difference from last season. Eric Wolford was UK’s 2021 offensive line coach before moving on to Alabama. Wolford owned an extensive college background. He wasn’t married to the zone scheme that Scangarello and Zenser know and believe in.

“We’re not going to change what we do,” said Zenser after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re going to continue to get better at it. I’ve watched it work. I believe in it. “

It hasn’t helped that through three games Kentucky has used three different starting lineups. Preseason All-SEC guard Kenneth Horsey did not start in the opener after missing most of fall camp with an injury. Horsey was then moved to left tackle for the season’s second game, replacing David Wohlabaugh who was moved to reserve right tackle behind Jeremy Flax. Jager Burton has started all three games at left guard alongside center Eli Cox, but starting right guard Tashawn Manning was held out of last Saturday’s game because of an injury. Quintin Wilson started in place of Manning.

“It’s not an excuse that we’ve started three different combinations,” Zenser said. “Guys have to be able to play with each other. . . . You wish you could stay healthy and play with the same five guys, that would be awesome and be able to rotate guys in. The reality is that it doesn’t happen.”

What’s happening now, or not happening, is aggravating to everyone. The more he talked about it Monday, the more Stoops grew aggravated. The more the media asked Cox about it Tuesday, the shorter the center’s answers became. “I think continuity and attention to detail is what we need,” was Cox’s summation.

Getting Rodriguez back from suspension on Oct. 1 at Ole Miss should help, too. In the meantime, Saturday’s game with Northern Illinois is an opportunity for the Big Blue Wall to take a step toward living up to the legacy of the Big Blue Wall.

“I think the run blocking is going to continue to be an improvement as guys get more comfortable with each other,” Zenser said. “And us putting our guys in good situations. That’s what we’ve got to continue to do.”

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