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UK sophomore left tackle Darrian Miller‘s “Welcome to the Southeastern Conference” moment came in the Wildcats’s 48-10 loss to Florida last season.
Miller was playing in his fourth collegiate game and first SEC contest. At that point he’d already started two games due to a rash of injuries among UK’s veteran offensive linemen, but when a Gator player ran over him on one play he knew the competition level had just increased.
“I got just the absolute worst bull rush I’ve ever gotten in my life,” he said. “That was actually good motivation, a nice little wakeup call.”
Most freshmen offensive linemen arrive on campus expecting to spend their first year of college watching on the sideline, working in the weight room and using a redshirt season to prepare for the physicality of college defenders.
Miller wasn’t that lucky. At least three starting offensive linemen were battling injures by UK’s second game of the 2011 season. Miller started that game against Central Michigan and started in week three against Louisville. He played in all 12 games as a true freshman.
“I got a lot of experience that I wasn’t exactly expecting to get,” he said. “I saw a lot of things that I never really thought I would see. It introduced me to the speed of the game and the actual strength of some of the players I’d be going up against.”
Now Miller enters his sophomore season as one of the few players with game experience on the line. He is joined by senior center Matt Smith and All-SEC guard Larry Warford. The Wildcat offensive line will also feature two new starters in redshirt freshman guard Zach West and junior tackle Kevin Mitchell.
While Warford is the standout of the group after being named to the watch list for the Rotary Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy Award, he expects big things from Miller.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Warford said of Miller. “He’ll be an All-SEC guy, I promise you that. He’s a really smart player, really fast, really strong.”
UK offensive line coach Mike Summers isn’t ready to anoint Miller as an All-SEC player just yet.
“I’d be careful at what I quoted Larry on guaranteeing because he’s guaranteed a lot of things,” Summers said. “Like I said with Larry when he was at that stage, Darrian is on track to being an elite player.
“Many players get on that track, but before they arrive something happens and they get derailed. He’s on the track to be that kid of player. If he continues to work and continues to develop, I’m excited about what the future holds for him.”
Miller’s early insertion into the offensive line rotation was not what he or his coaches planned for the 6-foot-5, 293-pound Bryan Station High School alum, but his experience could be valuable in 2012.
West has never appeared in a college game, and Mitchell has only started one game in his career. The second-team offensive line has even less experience.
Junior tackle Trevino Woods has played in 27 games in his UK career, but most of his action has come on field goal and extra point units. Backup sophomore guard Teven Eatmon-Nared and backup sophomore center Max Godby have yet to appear in a game. True freshman Jordan Swindle is receiving backup reps at left tackle, and redshirt freshman Jack Gruenschlaeger is also seeing time at the position. Redshirt freshman Shaquille Love is listed as the backup at left guard.
“I would like to have about four more guys that you really feel good about,” said offensive coordinator Randy Sanders. “First group, I feel very good about. Second group, I’m sure my daughters are nervous about a little bit.
“We’ve got some guys there that can play. They’re making improvement, they need to make improvement. Hopefully we won’t get put in that situation too quick.”
If UK has better luck with injuries on the line early this season, the Wildcats may not need all of those backups to play. Summers said the plan is for the sixth and seventh best linemen to rotate in at several positions.
He said Woods can play both tackle and guard positions, while Eatmon-Nared can play the interior line positions on both sides.
“We’ll mix and match to get the best guys out there,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the next tackle that goes in behind the left tackle.”
UK signed five offensive linemen in its freshman class, but the coaching staff would like to avoid using any of those players for as long as possible.
Among the newcomers, Swindle is one player who has likely cracked the two-deep depth chart. Summers likes what he sees from the 6-foot-7, 310-pound Florida native but said he still has work to do.
“(You see) a lot of the things you saw in Darrian Miller last year,” Summers said. “He’s got good movement skills. He’s very intelligent. He’s lacking in college offensive lineman strength. He needs strength and needs experience, but he’s got a lot of good qualities you can work with. That gets me excited.”
What can the second-team unit do to prove it’s ready for game action?
“Get older,” Summers joked. “A lot of stuff is happening to them for the first time. There’s some guys in there I’m really excited about, but there’s just a real lack of experience right now.”
Miller learned first-hand what it takes to acquire that experience last season.
“I think you get out a lot of that nervous energy, running out in front of of 80,000 people and knowing that you’re counted on,” Summers said. “After you’ve done that a couple times, you realize that when you snap the ball you can’t hear any of the 80,000. All you’ve got is the guy in front of you.”
The 2011 Wildcats started three seniors on the line, and while this year’s team doesn’t share that experience it does have the benefit of a mostly healthy fall camp to build upon.
Some of that work paid off in the second scrimmage of fall camp when the offense scored on a 14-play, 98-yard drive. Of the 14 plays on the drive, 12 were running plays.
“It was great. Coming out from your own two yard line, that’s always going to be a tough deal for an offense,” Warford said. “Just to know that we accomplished that will basically all of them being run plays, it just shows you the toughness of our offensive line and how much confidence the coaches have in us to call all those running plays.”
The 98-yard drive may have shined a positive light on the offensive line, but for the most part linemen are only recognized when they make a mistake.
That’s fine with Summers.
“The one thing that happens in football is there’s a lot of places for blame, and a lot of places for credit,” he said. “Really all we care about up front is doing our job. We’ll let everyone else worry about where the credit and where the blame goes.”
During UK’s fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks, wide receivers, linebackers, tight ends, defensive backs and special teams.