Jeremy Flax didn’t waste time voicing his opinion.
“Right now, as a whole, we feel like we’re not performing in the run game,” Kentucky’s senior offensive tackle said after the team’s open practice on Saturday.
Wait a minute. Did Flax say the Wildcats were not performing well in the run game? Isn’t spring practice for happy talk, for painting an optimistic picture for the upcoming season?
True, head coach Mark Stoops sounded the alarm the Saturday before when he used the word “entitled” in expressing his disappointment in his team’s performance at that particular point in spring drills.
It’s a bit more jarring to hear it independently from a player, however, especially one who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 325 pounds.
“We’re further ahead than we were last (spring) but we’ve still got a long ways to go,” Flax said of the line as a whole. “Right now, for us, it’s more so communication and just finishing plays off, really. We know what we’ve got to do, but when we get on separate pages that’s when things start to fall apart.”
It was obvious Saturday the run game has yet to come together. Injuries at tight end played a role. Jordan Dingle, Eric Kattus and Brenden Bates are all sidelined. Still, to Flax’s eyes, the O-line bears responsibility, as well.
“We’re not anywhere near to our full abilities,” Flax said. “We’re definitely watching film and definitely seeing what we’re doing wrong and stuff like that. That’s really our main goal, being able to run the ball and then open up the hole. That’s what we got to do.”
Running the football has been the offensive staple of the Mark Stoops era. Three years ago the Cats tipped too far out of balance. In response, Stoops switched offensive coordinators, bringing in Liam Coen from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. When Coen returned to the Rams, Stoops hired Rich Scangarello from the San Francisco 49ers’ staff. When that didn’t work out, Stoops coaxed Coen into returning.
Still, Stoops wants a physical ground game. With a pair of NFL Draft picks on the line in Luke Fortner and Darian Kinnard, UK ranked 25th nationally in rushing in 2021. With a line in flux last season, the Cats dropped all the way to 107th.
“I think it’s more so a feel thing, guys getting comfortable with chemistry,” Flax said. “Communication. That’s one thing I feel like in our group that we’re doing a little bit on and something we’ve got to do more of and that’s talk to each other.”
That’s understandable. Offensive line coach Zach Yenser is back, but there’s a newcomer in left tackle Marques Cox, the transfer from Northern Illinois. There’s a position change for Jager Burton, the sophomore who is lining up at center after starting all 13 games last season at left guard.
“This is Jager’s first year really taking snaps,” Flax said. “He’s a young guy, too, but you can tell he’s progressing well. It’s going to take time obviously, but Jager he’s the type of guy, he’s athletic, he’s 300 pounds, he can move, he can play any position on the O-line. We all know he’s going to get it.”
What about Flax? Pre-spring, there was talk of more competition at his right tackle spot. But judging by Saturday’s practice, the Detroit native appears set to start there.
“Going out there and knowing what you got as soon as you get up on the ball is probably the best feeling in the world,” Flax said. “Then you can move fast. You can do what you need to do when you got that mindset and you know what’s going on.”
And what did Flax learn from last year’s experience?
“What I learned mostly is SEC football hurts,” he said with a chuckle. “Those games are really tough, really physical. I learned that after games you’ve got to recover. Get in the training room because those games are so physical you’re going to be really banged up afterwards, for sure.”