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With just three full-time starters returning on offense from the 2012 season, the last thing UK fans might expect is one of those veterans to be in a fight for playing time.
But that’s exactly the situation facing redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Zach West.
West started all 12 games in 2012 at left guard, but after missing much of spring practice with a shoulder injury he’s fighting this fall to earn a starting spot at either left guard or center.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to buck up and do what you can,” he said. “Definitely working two positions is hard sometimes, but I’m getting a lot of reps at multiple positions, so that can help too.”
The Wildcats face a glaring hole at center after the graduation of three-year starter Matt Smith. Two redshirt freshmen, Zach Myers and Jon Toth, were the leaders for the spot in spring practice. Now Toth has moved to left tackle, leaving West as Myers’ primary competition. Junior walk-on Max Godby is also receiving reps at the position.
“We’d like for one of those guys to take the reins and become the guy,” said offensive line coach John Schlarman. “We’d like to have something in place by the end of this week, as far as who’s kind of making a move on that, but right now we’re just seeing how it progresses.”
In a perfect world, UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown would have a veteran center, which he describes as the “quarterback of the offensive line,” to help take some of the burden from the quarterback in his spread offense.
Instead, whoever wins the job will make his first career start at the position in the season opener versus Western Kentucky.
Of course, the Cats still have not found a starting quarterback either, so two major components’ of Brown’s scheme remain in flux. Which position battle is more important?
“(It’s) one and 1A,” Brown said.
At least two starters on the line appear set in stone. Junior Darrian Miller will start at left tackle. Senior Kevin Mitchell is listed as the starter at right guard in the post-spring depth chart, but he also could see time at tackle. Sophomore Jordan Swindle, who played in 11 games as a true freshman, is listed as the post-spring starter at right tackle.
If West loses the center job, there’s no guarantee he will slide back to left guard. He’s battling junior Teven Eatmon-Nared for playing time there.
“You know, it always helps to have a guy who has game experience out there somewhere,” Schlarman said. “But in an ideal world we want the best five out there battling.”
West played some center as a senior at Lexington Christian Academy, but is still adjusting to snapping the ball after moving to guard full-time last season. Since the center uses one hand to snap the ball to the quarterback, he often does not have both hands immediately available for blocking like the other linemen.
While the new coaching staff was frank about West’s need to improve his snapping entering camp, Brown said Tuesday that all the lineman competing for the center job had been “pretty consistent” with their snaps thus far this fall. All three lineman also have a “good understanding” of the position’s role in pre-snap protections, Brown said.
For now West and Myers are alternating reps with the first team with Godby getting reps with the second team. West expects the intensity to be pushed to an even higher level with a decision near.
“You might see some guys laying on the practice field afterwards, just so they can get that position,” he said.
With just more than two weeks left before the season opener, Brown knows extra practice time working together for whoever wins both the quarterback and center jobs could be valuable. That doesn’t mean he and head coach Mark Stoops will rush into a decision just to make one.
“I think that’s a valid argument,” he said. “The quicker you can narrow it down, the quicker you can pick a guy, the better. But at the same time, you don’t want to rush and make a hasty decision.”