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2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Linemen

Most Scrutinized Group On The Team

Hello everyone and welcome back to the fourth in our ongoing series looking at the 2023 Kentucky Wildcats. We started with the quarterbacks, moved to the running backs, and then the receivers. This time out we’re looking at the big guys up front whose job is to protect Devin Leary. We begin our 2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Linemen with a look at the offensive line. In addition, we’ll move to the defense starting with the line.

Back To What’s Expected

For anyone who’s watched Kentucky football over the last few years one of the hallmarks of the program is the offensive line. Under the late John Schlarman the name “Big Blue Wall” was coined for their abilities. In fact, they were one of the finalists for the Joe Moore Award for the nation’s best line in 2021.

Unfortunately for the Big Blue Nation, 2022 was not up to expectations. The group allowed 47 sacks which was fifth most in the nation and second-most among power-five schools. Only Boston College was worse. They also struggled opening up running lanes as the Cats only averaged 3.26 yards per carry. As a result Stoops and offensive line coach Zach Yenser looked to the transfer portal for instant help.

Instant Impact Transfers

Kentucky landed in the top 20 in the transfer portal rankings. A big part of that was four offensive linemen heading to Lexington. They include Marques Cox from Northern Illinois, Courtland Ford of USC, Tanner Bowles from Alabama, and Ben Christman of Ohio State. They look to provide a huge boost for the line.

Bowles, a Kentucky native, is listed as a guard but played all five positions for the Crimson Tide. Cox graded exceptionally high last year before suffering a season-ending injury ironically in a game against Kentucky. Christman was a four-star player at Ohio State before leaving Columbus. Lastly, Ford comes from USC where he was the starter in 2021.

Moving Around Some Key Pieces

Heading into the opener against Ball State four of the five positions are pretty well set. Cox is your starter at left tackle. In the spring the staff moved Jager Burton to center. The sophomore from Lexington played in all 13 games last season, mostly at left guard. He became the first UK player since Logan Stenberg to earn freshmen All-SEC honors. However, he also spent emergency time at center. The staff was so impressed that he moved there in 2023. This allowed Eli Cox, who was the starting center last year, to go back to his normal guard position.

With Cox taking over at tackle Kenneth Horsey moves back to his preferred position of left guard. The super senior spent most of 2022 at tackle, a spot he wasn’t as familiar with, and had an up-and-down year.

Ford most likely starts the season at right tackle though last year’s starter Jeremy Flax is also in the mix. Behind them, the Cats have several other options. One name to watch on the line freshman Koby Keenum. The Alabama native is the highest-ranked offensive lineman in the 2023 class. UK also has Grant Bingham, Paul Rodriguez, and Malachi Wood are also competing for playing time. Nikolas Hall, son of former UK great Antonio Hall, will miss 2023 due to injury.

Now that we’ve finished up the offensive let’s flip to the defense as we continue our 2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Linemen.

All-SEC Player

One of the biggest stories in 2022 was the development of tackle Deone Walker. During his first season, the Detroit native had 40 tackles, a sack, and a forced fumble. He was named SEC’s co-Defensive Lineman of the week for his performance against Louisville. In that contest, he made six tackles, had a half-sack, and forced a fumble. As a result of his strong play, Walker was also named a freshman All-American.

Heading into this season Walker is on the watch lists for both the Nagurski Award and the Outland Trophy. In fact, he’s been so dominant in camp that Stoops had to “take action” recently.

Taking A Big Step Forward

A season ago Josaih Hayes split time with Justin Rogers at the nose guard position. However, Rogers transferred to Auburn after the season. In 11 games Hayes recorded eight tackles and a pass deflection. His playing time went down considerably at the end of the year as Jamarius Dinkins emerged as the backup nose guard. Dinkins made nine tackles and had a sack in nine games. Most notably he had a big game against the national champion Georgia Bulldogs.

Hayes made great strides in the spring and that’s continued into camp as has Dinkins, a three-star player from Ohio. For Kentucky’s defense to be great they’ll need more consistent play from both guys. As we continue with our 2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Linemen let’s look at a transfer the staff has high hopes for.

Instant Impact Transfer

As we’ve talked about Kentucky really improved its roster through the transfer portal. One of the newcomers is on the defensive line. Keeshawn Silver, a 6-4,315 pounder from Rocky Mountain, North Carolina left Mack Brown’s program and headed to Lexington.

Coming out of high school Silver ranked as the 31st-best player in the nation. Here’s a fun fact Silver was ranked higher than Heisman Trophy contender Drake Maye. However, he never found much playing time in Chapel Hill appearing in only four games in two years. He’s pushing Dinkins and Hayes for playing time.

The player likely backing up Walker is Octavious Oxendine. Playing in six games before a season-ending injury Oxendine recorded 15 tackles and two sacks in 2021. He dropped 30 pounds in the off-season in order to be quicker upfront. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out the way he and defensive line coach Anwar Stewart hoped. As a result, he bulked back up for 2023. Former Ohio State transfer Darrion Henry-Young also provides depth.

Keeping The Status Quo

The defensive end spot shouldn’t see much change from 2022. Redshirt junior Tre’Vonn Rybka appeared in 12 games last season making 19 tackles and a sack. He’s backed up by redshirt sophomore Khalil Saunders who made 13 stops and had a half sack.

UK also has three freshmen on the defensive line whose time will come, just maybe not this year. Tavion Gadson, Kendrick Gilbert, and Tommy Zeismer

Final Thoughts

Led by Walker the Kentucky defensive line could go eight or nine deep and has a chance to be one of the SEC’s best in 2023. That’s a great problem to have for Stewart. Thanks for checking out our 2023 Kentucky Position Previews: Linemen here at Last Word On College Football.

Photo Credit: Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

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