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Youth on Offensive Line Not Concerning for Kentucky Entering Season-Opener

Zach Yenser isn't worried about his young players on the left side of the Big Blue Wall

Kentucky's starting offensive line on Saturday will feature an interesting blend of young and old. 

On Monday, the first official depth chart of the season was released, showcasing this O-line unit that will hit the field for the first offensive play of the season against Miami (Ohio):

  • Left Tackle: David Wohlabaugh Jr- RS FR
  • Left Guard: Jager Burton- RS FR
  • Center: Eli Cox- JR
  • Right Guard: Tashawn Manning- SR
  • Right Tackle: Jeremy Flax- JR

The unit slowly took shape throughout preseason camp, though the middle of the 2022 rendition of the Big Blue Wall was never in doubt. 

Eli Cox takes over the center position after starting nine games at right guard a year ago. He replaces Luke Fortner, who established himself as one of the better centers in the nation a season ago. 

Cox's 2021 season was ended due to a hand injury he sustained during the Tennessee game, but he enters this season back to full health and ready to continue the streak of top-notch centers at UK:

"It's just nice to have the confidence that they believe in me and be able to put a good product on the field," Cox said. "I mean, we've been really spoiled to have two really good centers the past couple of years and another one before that. Just some big shoes to fill, but I'm excited for the opportunity.

The right side of the field touts two veterans. Tashawn Manning transferred in after spending five seasons at Auburn, where he made 14 career starts for the Tigers, all of which came on the opposite side of the line at left guard. Next to him is Jeremy Flax, who locked down the right tackle spot in camp and will make his first career start on Saturday. 

Like Flax, both David Wohlabaugh and Jager Burton will start for the first time against the Redhawks, though the opportunity comes much sooner in their collegiate careers. 

"I'm real excited about those guys playing, I think they've earned it and they've done a good job," offensive line coach Zach Yenser said of Wohlabaugh and Burton. "(Wohlabaugh) has done a good job of locking down that left tackle spot right now, I've got a lot of confidence in both of those guys, both smart, tough guys, they know the offense."

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The left tackle battle was the last to be decided in preseason camp, as Wohlabaugh eventually beat out sophomore Deondre Buford and fellow freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin. 

"Through the whole process, he became the most consistent with it. We have a lot of confidence in him...really good in the run game, and athletically, he's getting a lot better in protection and being smarter with his angles and how he's setting, he's done a really good job," Yenser said. 

Consistency has been one of the buzz words around camp for Kentucky, and Wohlabaugh's ability to perform day-in, day-out was what ultimately landed him the starting gig. 

The redshirt freshman embraced the competition over the fall:

"Knowing there's an open spot and knowing there's multiple guys that can play in that position, I think it just makes everyone better who's trying to go for that spot because we're competing against each other. And no matter the outcome, I think we all got better from it for sure," Wholabaugh said.

For Burton, the starting spot may be temporary, though it doesn't mean he didn't earn it throughout camp. Expected starting guard and team captain Kenneth Horsey is still returning to 100 percent health, leading head coach Mark Stoops to name Burton the starter for now.

The Frederick Douglass High School product has drawn praise since his arrival to Lexington last season, so much so that Stoops and Yenser trust him to take-on a starting role in place of Horsey. 

"We know what we have to do to protect them, but we'll just see how the game goes, but we've got answers for everything, so we're good," Yenser said. 

For Kentucky, the offensive line has been a question mark in the lead-up to Saturday's season-opener, as none of the five starters have ever made a start in their respective position they'll line up at this weekend. 

Stoops, Scangarello and Yenser have each expressed their confidence in the mixed group, as the Big Blue Wall learns to adjust without NFL draftees Fortner and Darian Kinnard. Growing pains may come, but talent is expected to trump all for the Wildcats in the trenches this season.