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Kentucky’s offensive line has the biggest brand in college football — there is no denying that. John Schlarman built the Big Blue Wall in Lexington, and the Wildcats look to carry on his legacy by continuing the program’s run of elite line of scrimmage play. With 62 starts returning to the position room, new assistant coach Eric Wolford has a group loaded for bear in 2021.
Big Blue Wall
Kentucky could have the best offensive line in college football and it all starts with Darian Kinnard. The former blue-chip recruit played his high school ball for Cleveland (Ohio) St. Ignatius before coming to Kentucky and starting a pair of games as a true freshman. Since then, Kinnard has started 26 consecutive games and became one of the best offensive tackles in college football. The 6-foot-5, 345-pound tackle was a preseason All-American and is sliding out to left tackle to bolster his draft stock in 2021 after being graded as the top zone-blocking player in college football last season by PFF.
On the interior, super senior Luke Fortner is back for his sixth season in Lexington and the Ohio native is transitioning to center. After starting 23 games at guard, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound veteran is taking over the center spot for Drake Jackson. Fortner has legit NFL Draft value due to his size and could be the best center in the SEC this season.
Kenneth Horsey returns at left guard after starting eight games as a redshirt sophomore. The Florida native was a low three-star recruit in the class of 2018 out of Sanford (Fla.) Seminole High. Horsey gives Kentucky athleticism at the position and brings pass protection value. After a scare at Kentucky Fan Day, the veteran should be ready to roll this season.
Kenneth Horsey was seen carted off the field at the end of Kentucky’s practice. I’ve heard that the injury is not a severe, season-ender. The left guard is okay, expected to return to the #BigBlueWall this fall.
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) August 8, 2021
At right tackle, former junior college transfer Jeremy Flax is expected to start. The four-star recruit picked Kentucky over Auburn in the class of 2020 becoming another Detroit native to join the program. Flax is attempting to hold on to the starting spot in camp, but Liam Coen gushed about the redshirt sophomore during spring ball.
“I think Flax has made himself a cornerstone over there right now at right tackle,” said Coen. “He’s really more athletic than I thought he was.”
At right guard, another low three-star recruit is stepping into a starting role. Eli Cox is in year three in the program, but the Kentucky native has impressed Wolford enough since last season ended. Cox is your current starter at right guard standing at 293 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. Kentucky could have another major developmental story to tell if the Nicholasville (Ky.) West Jessamine product continues to grow.
#51 Dare Rosenthal: The most recent addition to the position room, Rosenthal started eight games at LSU and the former blue-chip recruit has NFL potential. The 327-pound junior is a good-looking athlete and Mark Stoops was impressed in how he played once the pads came on. Rosenthal will push both Flax and Kinnard as Kentucky could have tremendous tackle depth this season. The positional athleticism is truly impressive and Ed Orgeron hated to lose him.
“He’s a tremendous player. I hate to lose him,” Ed Orgeron told KSR at SEC Media Days.
“I recruited him out of Ferriday High School. Defensive lineman, went to offensive line. He didn’t want to leave. It was hard on him. I think they’ve got a potential first-round draft choice there. Dare knows he’s got some stuff he needs to get better at and I’m sure Kentucky’s going to see that. He’s a great young man, a great team player.”
#53 R.J. Adams: A late top-500 recruiting win in the class of 2020, R.J. Adams hails from the fertile DMV area and is looking to push for playing time at offensive guard. At 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, Adams brings some good size to the position.
#56 Deondre Buford: Another recruiting win out of Detroit, Buford enters year two in Lexington and appears to be a good fit for the left tackle position. However, the addition of Rosenthal gives the Family Science major some more time to develop. Look for Buford to make a bigger push for playing time in year three.
#60 Quintin Wilson: The Cincinnati native is now a redshirt junior, but Wilson needed just 2.5 years to earn his degree in Management. The 294-pound redshirt junior is currently working on his MBA and was the center with the twos at open practice. However, Wilson has the potential to play guard if Kentucky needs more depth at one of those spots.
#61 Austin Dotson: The Belfry (Ky.) High product is a redshirt senior and the 313-pound guard is a mauler in the run game. Dotson started four games last season while playing nearly 400 snaps. The new wide zone concepts could be a tough scheme for Dotson to master, but the reserve guard could bring real value in short-yardage situations when the power game is required. If Kentucky goes to unbalanced sets this year, expect Dotson to be a guy coming in off the bench.
#62 Jager Burton: The true freshman out of Lexington (Ky.) Frederick Douglass was a top-75 prospect in the class of 2021 who picked Kentucky over Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, and Oregon. Expectations were high for Burton, and the diaper dandy is delivering on the promise. Burton is running with the twos at left guard and should be a part of the offensive line rotation this season.
#66 Naasir Watkins: A redshirt senior out of the DMV, Watkins has played in 25 games during his career with one start but is overcoming a knee injury that took away his 2020 season. However, the 305-pound tackle appears to be back to full health and was full-go with the team at fan day.
#67 Paul Rodriguez: The true freshman out of Metro Cincinnati heads into the year with great size standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 330 pounds. With a wingspan over 81 inches, Rodriguez could bring major traits to the right tackle position. The newcomer needs time to develop, but keep this name in mind down the road.
#71 John Young: A four-star recruiting win out Louisville (Ky.) Christian Academy, Young is still looking for his long-term position. The redshirt freshman could play any of the interior spots but likely needs more time to grow in the system.
#72 Josh Jones: Another second-year player, Jones picked Kentucky over LSU out of Central-Phenix City (Ala.) High and currently checks in at 336 pounds. The offensive guard isn’t set for playing time this year as the redshirt freshman heads into another development season.
#74 David Wohlabaugh Jr.: Another true freshman, Wohlabaugh was a three-star recruiting win out of Ohio who came to Kentucky with an impressive pedigree. The newcomer had excellent high school tape and after enrolling early for spring ball has made a push for playing time. The 6-foot-6 rookie is running with the twos at right tackle and appears to have a bright future. Wohlabaugh brings power, length, and positional athleticism to the tackle position.
#76 Jake Pope: A South Florida product, Pope is in year three in the program and is looking to make an impact at tackle this season. At 6-foot-7, the redshirt sophomore has some size that could provide some positional value.
Gap schemes will not go away
Kentucky was an inside zone team under Eddie Gran, but when this ground game took off was when the coaching staff started to implement more gap schemes to the offense. Power and counter became two very valuable staples to the offense. Don’t expect Liam Coen to go away from those just yet.
At South Carolina, Eric Wolford had a lot of success with both duo and pin and pull runs bringing concepts learned from Chip Kelly to the SEC. The two different gap scheme designs should show up in Lexington this fall.
“I think every college football program in the country runs inside zone but I think you have to have more of a variety these days because people are catching up to that,” Wolford told the media in December. “So I think some of the things that I’ve brought here to South Carolina that I learned at the 49ers and that I did at Youngstown [State] — some of the stuff that you saw Chip Kelly doing. The pin-and-pull scheme — that’s some of the stuff playing you guys that Mark’s [Stoops] seen, Mark likes it. Alabama’s running it now, it’s become a popular play in our league. I think there’s also another play — they call it duo — which is where you have two double teams at the point of attack and the back reads the linebacker and wherever the linebacker goes, he goes opposite. Play-actions and the nakeds [bootlegs] off of that are really, really good.”
The wide zone will be the backbone of the offense, but Kentucky will have plenty of running game wrinkles thanks to some gap scheme runs.
Something You Didn’t Know
David Wohlabaugh Jr. is a star in the making. The true freshman tackle’s father, Dave, played in the NFL nine years after starring for Syracuse with 128 career starts in the professional ranks. His older brother, Jack, started his collegiate career at Ohio State before transferring to Duke. The super senior has started 18 games for the Blue Devils and is scheduled to be the starting center in Durham this season.
The younger Wohlabaugh has the pedigree, but playing another sport helped the young offensive tackle improve his craft while growing up. No, it wasn’t what you’re thinking.
“I played hockey for most of my life,” Wohlabaugh said. “I started skating when I was three years old, actually. I played all the way until my sophomore year of high school so I watched it a lot growing up. I didn’t really have what I would say a favorite team, but I watched the Columbus Blue Jackets a lot because they’re an Ohio team.”
“I think some things transition really well to football. In hockey, you have to have fast feet and really good feet. I think that helped me with my footwork on the offensive line. It for sure helps with balance a lot.”
Kentucky hockey needs to beg Mark Stoops to let Wohlabaugh out on the ice.
Biggest Question Mark
“Do all the new pieces fit?”
There are a ton of reasons for the Kentucky offensive line to be excited heading into 2021. Darian Kinnard is a pro at tackle. Luke Fortner is one of the best interior line players in college football. Both Jeremy Flax and Dare Rosenthal have NFL potential with multiple years of eligibility remaining. There are other returning starts coming back to the room at both guard and tackle.
However, there are a lot of moving parts for this group heading into the fall.
Eric Wolford is a new position coach, Liam Coen is a new offensive coordinator, and the new scheme will ask the Big Blue Wall to approach the game differently this season. Elsewhere, the two best players are switching positions as Kinnard moves to left tackle and Fortner slides to center. Meanwhile, Eli Cox is a first-time starter. That’s a lot of moving parts and to not expect growing pains would be foolish.
This is a group that could get off to a slow start if all the new moves don’t gel immediately.
One Bold Prediction
“Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard will both be first-team All-SEC performers.”
Despite all the movement, it’s time to buy into the proven production. The moves to center and left tackle solidifies the two most important positions on the offensive line and both seniors are pros. Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard will deliver the goods.
Fortner becomes the best center in the SEC as he makes the position change similar to Alabama’s Landon Dickerson last season. Kinnard holds it down at left tackle while living up to his All-American promise. This duo paces the group as Kentucky has the best offensive line in the SEC and is firmly in the running for the Joe Moore Award.