LEXINGTON, Ky. --- With two returning starters sitting out most of the drills during the first week of practice and a third slated to miss the entire season due to academics, depth along the offensive line has suddenly become a concern for Kentucky coach Guy Morriss.
Center Nolan DeVaughn, hampered by a foot infection, has yet to take the practice field. Fellow senior Josh Parrish, a guard, is limited to one session during two-a-days due to nagging joint injury the staff does not want to risk getting worse. And then there's Kip Sixbery, the junior guard who failed to meet academic requirements this spring and is now relegated to a practice body.
That means players like sophomore guards Sylvester Miller and Nick Seitze, as well as last year's redshirt trio of Matt Huff, Josh Jaggers and Jason Rollins, are being counted on more heavily in the plans for the coming season.
"We've got to have some guys rise and step up," Morriss said. "They've got to understand that we need them to get with it because they're part of the big picture now. We need eight or nine guys in the rotation up there, so there needs to be a sense of urgency with those guys to figure out what it's all about.
"You hate to have so many guys out and shifting everyone around so much, but the good thing that can come out of that is these guys will get the extra reps. And that's how you become a player, getting the reps. Now we just need them to show to us that they're players and make us feel like we can put them in the game."
Another wrinkle entered the equation Tuesday when Morriss announced that Jaggers, the 6-foot-4, 287-pound former all-stater from Danville, had returned home to contemplate his football future with his family. The UK coach said he had expected to hear something from Jaggers on Tuesday afternoon, but was giving him all the time he needed to reach a decision.
"I told him to take a couple of days off and try to clear his mind," Morriss said. He also added that Jaggers had struggled with picking up the pass protection necessary in the Wildcats' system, but had been "making a little bit of a move" before leaving camp.
If Jaggers does not return, that would mark the second lineman (junior tackle Drew Ashcraft) to leave the program since spring.
That left UK working with a first-string line that featured Antonio Hall (sore ankle) and Matt Brown (recovering from shoulder surgery) at the tackles, Miller and Huff at the guards and Keith Chatelain at center. Seitze, a converted defensive lineman, and Rollins were the only other non-true freshmen participating in the drills.
"Huff was probably the first guy we would have used (last year) if we'd been in a bind," Morriss said of the 6-5, 300-pounder from Louisville. "He's got a little bit of that nasty streak you like to see in an offensive lineman, so we think he could step in and help us.
"In a perfect world, he'd still be at tackle, but we're obviously not in a perfect world with our offensive line right now. But it's good for him. And he's got good feet and good speed, which is what we need because we're pulling our guards a little bit more and doing some things like that this year."
"It's all new to me. This is the first day I've ever played guard in my life," Huff said following the Friday, Aug. 10, sessions. "It's different, but I think it's going pretty well. The big difference is pass protection. At tackle, you're five or six yards back and then catch them. At guard, you're only about one yard back before you catch them. I'm starting to get it down, and I'm expecting to do well there."
Huff acknowledged he sees a big opportunity to make a name for himself this season. And he's eager to get back in the fray.
"Most definitely," he said. "I pretty much felt like I was ready at the end of last year, and coach Morriss told me I was the go-to guy if anyone got hurt, but it was probably good to have a redshirt year. It was tough sitting and watching. I can't say I've ever sat and watched a whole football game before that time, but it was good for me. I needed to get stronger and learn more about the game."
When asked how the offseason strength program went for him, Huff said, "Not as strong as I'd like to, but not too bad either. I went from about 330 to 365 on my bench. That's still not near where I need to be --- they want all of us to be at 400 on the line --- but I can still tell I'm a lot stronger overall this year."
Rollins, a 6-5, 265-pound native of Mount Vernon, Ohio, has also impressed Morriss but is still trying to add some much-needed muscle weight.
"J-Bob is coming on pretty good," Morriss said. "He just needs to get stronger because he's got tremendously quick feet and a little bit of a mean attitude which we like. I think he'll definitely be a player for the future. Ideally, he's still a year away from starting, but we've got to get him ready to be a backup this year."
Morriss noted this is an important year for the development of the three redshirt freshmen with seniors Brown, DeVaughn and Parrish departing.
"We need for them to play some because they're going to replace the three seniors," Morriss said. "So they were going to play some no matter what."
Another player to watch is Miller, the 6-5, 291-pounder known as "Big Kat" to his coaches and teammates. The Chicago native redshirted last year after seeing junior varsity action as a true freshman.
"He's another guy who's got to prove to me that he's serious about his football career," Morriss said. "He's been here now for two years going on his third year. In time, he could make a player out of himself. But he's not near as strong as he needs to be, and he's got to understand the intensity level that he needs to work at...
"The last day or two, he's really started to push a little bit. I think the extra reps are really helping him. This is the first time since he's been here that he's had this many reps, and he's starting to get comfortable with some of the things we're asking him to do."