When Kentucky football wrapped up spring practice, coaches made it clear where they felt the roster still needed upgrading in the spring transfer portal window.
“We’re still trying to figure out the right tackle spot right now,” offensive line coach Zach Yenser said. “Whether that’s somebody in our room or we’ve got to go get another one, we’re going to do whatever we have to do to feel confident to be able to win games this fall.”
Mark Stoops and company followed through on that promise by signing Southern California transfer Courtland Ford. Just days after Ford committed to Kentucky, two of the players who had competed for the right tackle job in spring practice, David Wohlabaugh and Deondre Buford, departed the program via the transfer portal.
But Jeremy Flax, the player many outside the program assumed was set to lose his starting job to Ford, remained.
Now, four games into the 2023 season, Flax looks like one of the most improved players on Kentucky’s roster.
“I think competition brings out the best in a lot of people,” offensive coordinator Liam Coen said. “He’s doing a good job. I thought he had one of his better games as a Wildcat last week.”
Flax has started all three games he has played in this season, but has split snaps with Ford as part of a right tackle rotation.
Kentucky’s offensive line has been far from perfect through four games, but much of the concern has come from the interior positions rather than the tackles. Right tackle may have been the biggest question entering the season, but pass protection has been the strength of the unit.
A year after ranking 126th nationally in sacks allowed, Kentucky ranks 19th in the same category through four games with just four sacks allowed. Quarterback Devin Leary’s ability to keep plays alive under pressure has saved the offensive line from at least a few more sacks, but it is clear the unit is improved.
“What really is just going well is just the preparation, the small things and the details,” Flax said. “Just staying in the playbook and going over things with the guys, building that chemistry, builds a lot of confidence. Then you’re able to perform better when you’re prepared for anything because it’s almost like you know what’s going to happen.”
Flax agreed with Coen’s assessment that competition has helped elevate his game, but he thinks that is true of the entire offensive line.
Kentucky signed Marques Cox from Northern Illinois to start at left tackle. Ford, Alabama transfer Tanner Bowles, West Virginia transfer Dylan Ray and Ohio State transfer Ben Christman were added for additional depth and competition. Christman is out for the season with a knee injury, but Ray has started the last three games at left guard since Kenneth Horsey was injured and Bowles is providing depth at guard and center.
Handling movement from the defensive front has been an issue for the offensive line at times. That struggle has contributed to too many unproductive runs on first and second downs.
“We’re giving them as much crap that we can throw at them as we possibly can,” Coen said. “Maybe even a little bit overloaded. It’s frustrating on Tuesday. It’s a little bit frustrating on Wednesday, but we’re hoping that at the end of this thing you’re getting better blocking movement. We’re working at it, but things happen fast.”
Improvements from Flax and the offensive line will be put to the test as the quality of opponents increases starting this week against Florida.
The fact that Flax’s best game to date came against Vanderbilt, the best team the Wildcats have played yet is at least a confidence boost heading into the more difficult portion of the schedule.
Few would have predicted in March that Flax would still be the starter by the time the Florida game came. Flax acknowledged he was made aware of the outside doubts during the offseason but said he did his best to ignore them and focus on what he can control. Coaches may have recruited a transfer they felt capable of taking his starting spot, but the only thing Flax could do was work to prove worthy of the job.
That formula has worked so far, but the presence of Ford appears to have helped in at least one other way too.
“Just being able to rotate there just helps keep guys fresh,” Coen said. “I think a fresh Flax is a good Flax.”
No. 22 Florida at Kentucky
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Florida 3-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 4-0 (1-0)
Series: Florida leads 53-20
Last meeting: Kentucky won 26-16 on Sept. 10, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla.