A candidate to start at a key position on the offensive line emerges for Kentucky football

Brooks Holton
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Competition on the training grounds is spilling over into the classroom for members of Kentucky football's offensive line.

"Highest GPA gets money, and the lowest GPA — that's the pay-up money for it," redshirt freshman David Wohlabaugh Jr. said after practice Tuesday, the second day of UK's 2022 fall semester.

It's too early to tell which lineman will earn academic bragging rights in their GPA pool, but Wohlabaugh appears to be making the grade in the trenches. The 6-foot-6, 302-pound Ohio native has emerged as a leading candidate to fill a void at left tackle on the Wildcats' "Big Blue Wall."

"It's still an open competition, and they're still battling, but he's done a really good job," first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello said Tuesday of Wohlabaugh. "I just like where he's at as a young player, and he's provided some stability out there. He's continued to improve, and we'll see, but I like where he's at."

Kentucky’s David Wohlabaugh Jr. during practice on Wednesday.
Aug. 24, 2022

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According to offensive line coach Zach Yenser, Wohlabaugh has been working at left tackle for nearly two weeks after beginning fall camp on the right side. The redshirt freshman started opposite of junior right tackle Jeremy Flax during a recent scrimmage, and his performance appears to have earned him a first-team spot when Kentucky opens the season Sept. 3 against Miami (Ohio).

"I thought he played really well," Yenser said of Wohlabaugh. "We got to continue to get a little bit more firm in pass pro, but, in the run game and his assignments, he's pretty spot on."

A three-star prospect out of Walsh Jesuit High School, Wohlabaugh enrolled at UK in January 2021 and played in two games last fall – a 45-10 win against Louisiana-Monroe in the season opener and a 31-17 loss at Mississippi State. He credited his climb up the depth chart to watching film "almost every day" during the offseason with junior Eli Cox, who is in line to start at center when the upcoming season kicks off.

"I'd write down my mistakes every day," Wohlabaugh said. "Even if it's the same thing, I'd write it down over and over again, and I'd just keep rereading it, just getting it in my mind, so it was all my mind was thinking about when I go on the field the next day until it became a habit for me."

Kentucky’s David Wohlabaugh Jr during practice on Wednesday.
Aug. 24, 2022

Having a father who started more than 100 games in the trenches during a nine-year NFL career and a brother who played offensive line at Duke certainly helped his development, too.

"Last year, I kind of played a little bit more timid. I was second-guessing myself and things like that," Wohlabaugh said. "This year, I feel like I definitely have a better knowledge of the game, and I think that attests to my brother, my dad. I've just been surrounded by football for my whole life."

Wohlabaugh is one of several linemen inheriting big shoes to fill on UK's "Big Blue Wall." Between the departures of Luke Fortner, Darian Kinnard and Dare Rosenthal, the Wildcats lost a combined 95 starts in the trenches this offseason.

It's a tall task for Yenser in his first full season in Lexington. But he said he has a plan.

"The five best are going to play," the coach said. "If somebody does go down, you want to be able to just make one move and then have to shuffle. You know, we want to avoid shuffling two or three guys around. You would love to just be able to insert one guy and keep everybody else the same."

Kentucky’s assistant coach of the offensive line Zach Yenser talks during practice on Wednesday.
Aug. 24, 2022

What does that starting five look like with Week 1 looming? Coming off a season-ending hand injury last fall, Cox is making the move from guard to center, and Wohlabaugh and Flax appear to have tackle locked down. They should be flanked at guard by senior Kenneth Horsey and Auburn transfer Tashawn Manning, who both have more than 10 starts in the Southeastern Conference under their belts, with redshirt freshman Jager Burton as the primary backup candidate.

"Still a long way to go with everybody just gelling together and getting reps and feeling comfortable with each other," said Yenser, who praised his unit's performance in the run game during a recent scrimmage but said pass protection continues to be an area in need of improvement.

Under former coach Eric Wolford, who left in the offseason for a spot on Alabama's staff, UK tied for 47th in the country with 25 sacks allowed during the 2021 season. Protecting the quarterback is a priority, Yenser said, as expectations for Will Levis are high.

"We want to keep Will as clean as possible, obviously, because when he has a clean pocket he's pretty doggone special," Yenser said.

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Waiting in the wings at tackle are sophomore Deondre Buford and freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin, a 6-foot-8, 351-pound Louisville native whose high-profile recruitment wasn't short on drama. Yenser said Goodwin's size will make it hard to keep him off the field for too long, so expect to see him getting acclimated to the college game with plenty of snaps during early matchups against Miami (Ohio), Youngstown State and Northern Illinois.

"His sheer size is going to give him an advantage of being able to step in and at least get in front of guys and not get pushed around," Yenser said of Goodwin. "Now, it's just continuing with the snap count and the plays and just becoming second nature — not having to think — and just playing ball."

Kentucky’s Kiyaunta Goodwin talks to Tashawn Manning during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022.

As Yenser continues to build his first iteration of the "Big Blue Wall," he's reminded every day of the man who laid its foundation. The late John Schlarman, who coached UK's offensive line from 2013 until he died of cancer in 2020, is featured on a large poster hanging on a side of Kroger Field directly outside the Joe Craft Football Training Facility.

"It brings everything in perspective," said Yenser, who worked with Schlarman at Troy during the late 2000s. "I want to do a good job for him and do good job for that line and continue to carry on the tradition."

Reach recruiting and trending sports reporter Brooks Holton at bholton@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter at @brooksHolton.