Kentucky football's offensive line needs time to come together, but Florida looms

LEXINGTON, Ky. — There were the breakdowns in pass protection. The four sacks allowed. The running game that never got going.

“A win’s a win. We’re not gonna apologize for that,” Kentucky football center Eli Cox said. "But obviously, that's not the standard we're used to seeing with our Big Blue Wall. So we got to earn that title back.”

That last one was in part by design.

Still, there were issues on the offensive line Saturday night in UK’s 37-13 win against Miami (Ohio), soft spots where the Wildcats are accustomed to bricks.

So 20th-ranked UK (1-0) celebrated its season-opening win at Kroger Field.

And then its o-line got down to the business of picking nits.

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Too often on Saturday, RedHawks defenders found open doors to Kentucky quarterback Will Levis, sacked four times on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff.

When it was over, Levis professed that he’d “never felt more disappointed in a 300-yard, three-touchdown performance in my life.”

He put that mostly on himself. Levis missed on some throws that are simple by his standard, blaming aiming rather than “letting it fly.” He threw an interception that he called “completely on me.”

But the offensive line broke down around him, too, and that will be Kentucky’s key concern as it enters a game next Saturday at Florida, an upset winner over No. 7 Utah in Week 1.

“We’ve got to be better,” UK coach Mark Stoops said.

Kentucky’s Brenden Bates celebrates scoring a touchdown with teammate David Wohlabaugh in the 1st quarter against Miami of Ohio.Sept. 3, 2022
Kentucky’s Brenden Bates celebrates scoring a touchdown with teammate David Wohlabaugh in the 1st quarter against Miami of Ohio.Sept. 3, 2022

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Some credit goes to Miami (0-1), which is sound up font and stacks the box in an effort to limit opponents in the running game. The RedHawks dare quarterbacks to throw over the top, UK offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said, and Levis had some success doing it.

But he also felt the heat of a solid pass rush.

The Wildcats have “a good idea,” Stoops said, of their biggest issues up front and even a feel for “who it was,” he added but didn’t elaborate.

Scangarello pointed to a lack of cohesiveness. The Wildcats’ starting line hadn’t played together in a game, and that inexperience showed.

Veteran guard Kenneth Horsey was less than 100% healthy in camp, and as he recovered the Cats found him some practice reps. Horsey didn’t start Saturday — Jager Burton got the nod at left guard instead — but did see some snaps.

Kentucky started redshirt freshman David Wohlabaugh at left tackle, and making a first collegiate start guarding a QB’s blindside “ain’t easy,” Scangarello said.

Levis likened a line’s development to his own as a first-year starter a season ago. It took time and reps, he said, to settle in. An offensive line has the added challenge of needing cohesion. A mistake by one player reflects on the entire line.

But UK has “the physical capability to get things done” on the line, Levis said.

“I don't know how it feels up front,” Levis said. “Never been out there. But I'm just sure that as time goes on, they're going to get more comfortable.”

They need to do it in a hurry.

Florida’s 29-26 win over the Utes on Saturday in Gainesville sets up a likely meeting of ranked teams at The Swamp next Saturday. And Florida figures to bring the heat to Levis. The Gators didn’t sack Utah QB Cameron Rising in the season opener, but the defense recorded five hurries.

Kentucky’s Eli Cox comes out onto the field before the game.Sept. 03, 2022
Kentucky’s Eli Cox comes out onto the field before the game.Sept. 03, 2022

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It would help for Kentucky to establish a running game at Florida.

And in that regard, Saturday’s stats probably don’t mean much.

Kentucky carried 26 times for 50 yards against Miami, but Scangarello said afterward the Cats conceded to a degree in the running game, making a conscious effort against Miami’s front-loaded defense not to run Levis in any designed plays.

Without the space that threat creates, Scangarello said, “it becomes very difficult to spread them out and create seams to run the ball.” So UK held back some offensive wrinkles.

It probably won’t do that again next week.

Scangarello was talking about his Gator gameplan “like two months ago,” Levis said.

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If the Cats hope to execute it, they’ll need Levis to remain upright. And that will require a stronger effort in pass protection than the one UK managed against Miami.

The RedHawks “twist and move” up front, Scangarello said, and UK “got beat on some stunts and just can’t.” He figures that will come with time. But UK has work to do before it faces the Gators.

And Cox noted that the Cats are trying to solve their issues up front with a new-look line. Two 2021 starters, Darian Kinnard and Luke Fortner, were selected in the NFL Draft. A third, Dare Rosenthal, signed as an undrafted free agent.

"You can't rebuild the wall overnight,” Cox said. “So it's gonna take some time.”

Reach Louisville men’s basketball reporter Brett Dawson and bdawson@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @BDawsonWrites.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Kentucky football offensive line needs improvement Florida