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New tackles must come through for UK football to thrive

Kentucky Wildcats offensive tackles Deondre Buford and Jeremy Flax do not live in a media vacuum.

The two Detroit products, projected to be first-time starters for UK this fall, are very aware that many college football pundits are saying the biggest question in evaluating whether UK football will succeed in 2022 is how the Wildcats’ two new tackles perform.

“I know this is what everybody has been speculating about, wondering what is going to happen at our position,” Buford said Wednesday at UK Football Media Day at Kroger Field. “I am ready to mature, step up and take that role.”

Says Flax: “We see the media stuff and all the talk about filling the tackle positions. … It’s fun getting to step into (big) shoes and be a part of something so important like the ‘Big Blue Wall.’”

It does not take the football acumen of Bill Belichick to identify the foundation that has supported Kentucky football’s rise during the Mark Stoops coaching era.

UK’s success sits atop a “Big Blue Wall” of relentless, physical offensive line play. Over the past four seasons, the Kentucky O-line has produced five NFL Draft picks and two First Team AP All-Americans.

Yet even as UK backers dream of the 2022 Wildcats contending for the SEC East crown, Kentucky will begin the year with the Big Blue Wall undergoing a substantial renovation.

When UK kicks off its season Sept. 3at 7pm vs. Miami (the one from Ohio), the Cats will have only two returning starters on the offensive line. With guard Eli Cox shifting to center, veteran left guard Kenneth Horsey will be the only Kentucky offensive lineman starting in the same position as a year ago. Incoming Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning is projected to get the nod at right guard.

The college football punditry class is not misguided in thinking the single biggest key to UK success this season is whether Buford and Flax can play at a level similar to that at which recent Kentucky tackles George Asafo-Adjei (seventh round, New York Giants, 2019 ); Landon Young (sixth round, New Orleans Saints, 2021); and Darian Kinnard (fifth round, Kansas City Chiefs, 2022) have performed.

“I think our tackles are pretty good,” new UK offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello says. “I think they are going to surprise people.”

Though both began their football journeys in Motown, Buford and Flax arrived in Lexington facing opposite personal challenges to getting on the field.

Buford was ranked the No. 24 offensive tackle prospect in the class of 2020 by 24/7 Sports, praised by the recruiting geeks for his athleticism. However, the product of Detroit’s Martin Luther King High School needed to add bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame in UK’s conditioning program to hold up against SEC pass rushers.

“I came in (to college), probably, 275 pounds,” Buford says. “Right now, today, I weighed in at 312 pounds. After practice, it was 308. So I am kind of right where I need to be.”

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Kentucky redshirt sophomore Deondre Buford (56) enters fall practice as the favorite to claim the Wildcats’ vacant starting spot at left offensive tackle. “I think he can definitely get it done,” says new UK offensive line coach Zach Yenser of Buford. silas walker swalker@herald-leader.com

At 6-3, Buford does not have the prototypical height of a Southeastern Conference offensive tackle. “I think they kind of ‘shorted me,’” Buford says with a grin. “I might be 6-4.”

Stand next to him and observe how long his arms are, and you decide it is not just happy talk when UK coaches say, height not withstanding, Buford has the length to play left tackle vs. SEC pass rushers.

“Deon has plenty of length,” new Kentucky offensive line coach Zach Yenser says. “He has plenty of athletic ability to take up space on the edge. I think he can definitely get it done.”

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New Kentucky offensive line coach Zach Yenser says developing two new starters for UK at offensive tackle in 2022 will “be fun but it is definitely a challenge.” silas walker swalker@herald-leader.com

Conversely, Flax brought too much bulk to UK. A product of Robichaud High School in Dearborn Heights, Mich., by way of Independence Community College in Kansas, Flax was listed at 358 pounds on the 2021 Kentucky roster.

This season, the 6-6 redshirt junior right tackle is a svelte 328. As a result, he reports feeling quicker and more mobile.

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Kentucky right tackle Jeremy Flax (77) has dropped from 356 pounds to 328. “It’s allowed me to move quicker and feel more comfortable when I move,” he said. silas walker swalker@herald-leader.com

For those looking for weight-loss tips (and aren’t we all), Flax says “for me, it wasn’t really the foods I was eating, but it was more so portions and the amount of food I was eating. I (lost weight) by eating more-(measured) portion sizes. I also laid off the sugary drinks, drank more water. And I stopped eating after 8 pm”

Says Yenser: “He’s done a really good job of being able to change his body composition. It’s helping him to move better.”

Flax says he is confident as a run blocker but focused over the summer on enhancing his skills as a pass protector of UK QB Will Levis. “The pass protection is going to be a test for us this season, especially because we are planning on throwing the ball a lot more,” Flax said.

To produce a successful football season in the SEC is a process containing many variables. But it is hard to imagine a route to a bountiful 2022 for Kentucky that does not include a strong showing from the Big Blue Wall’s new pillars.

Says Deondre Buford: “It’s pressure. There’s pressure for sure. But pressure makes diamonds.”

Adds Jeremy Flax: “We have a great history here at the tackle positions. … I think it’s exciting to get a chance to live up to that.”

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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