By LARRY VAUGHT
Senior offensive lineman Eli Cox doesn’t mince words about what Kentucky has to do better this season to make sure it does not have a repeat of last year’s 7-6 record.
“It has to be a conscious choice to be a physical, nasty unit. That is something we are really emphasizing,” said Cox, a preseason all-Southeastern Conference third team selection. “We are extra motivated to prove we have the talent and grit to be an elite offensive unit like in the past.
“We want to win every game but we also want to be the toughest team. The week after you play Kentucky, we want you to remember it. You relish the chance to compete against the best like we do in the SEC. But if you want to beat a team like Georgia it requires you to play your best game from the first of the game to the last whistle because they are not going to give you anything.”
Cox was a midseason All-American in 2021 when UK won 10 games. He started the first nine games before a hand injury ended his season. Last year he moved to center and started all 13 games but returning offensive coordinator Liam Coen has moved him back to right guard where he played for Coen in 2021.
“Center is a little bit different, especially pre-snap, having to diagnose the defense and have an extra eye on the defense and also know what your offense is doing. You have to be able to see both sides of the ball and see the full picture,” Cox said about playing center last season. “It was an interesting adjustment. It was just good for me in the long run, to be able to understand defensive football and have a better knowledge of the game.”
Kentucky’s offensive line was blamed for a lot of UK’s problems last season under offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello and first-year offensive line coach Zach Yenser. Scangarello was fired and Coen is back. Yenser is back for his second season.
“I don’t think Yenser got a fair shake last year. There was a lot of transition with guys in our offensive line, recruiting classes that didn’t see a coach all the way through the recruiting class,” Cox said. “We had (coach John) Schlarman, another coach, another coach after that. Three years with three different coaches.
“I think having that consistency in the recruiting aspect and development aspect for our offensive line is going to be important for us.”
Cox is moving back to guard because sophomore Jager Burton is moving from guard to center, a move Cox believes Burton can handle. Kenneth Horsey is also moving back to left guard after being switched to left tackle last year.
“I think having guys that can play all three interiors is very important to us. Last year we were hit with injury, and we don’t want that to derail our season again,” Cox said.
Kentucky added four offensive linemen in the transfer portal and Northern Illinois transfer Marques Cox is being counted on to solidify the left tackle position for Coen and quarterback Devin Leary.
“We’ve welcomed all our guys from the portal with open arms. They’re excited to be here. Just being able to get together off the field has kind of been the most important thing for us,” Eli Cox said. “The offensive line has to be one of the tightest-knit groups on the team. We all five have to work just to get one job done. Spending time together off the field, building that continuity, those relationships with each other is critical for us.
“We brought in guys that not just fit just what we need physically, but fit our culture as an offensive line. I think that has ultimately made their transition so much easier. When they have the same mentality as the rest of the guys in the room, it’s easy to get along.”
Cox was not a high profile recruit out of West Jessamine when the late John Schlarman felt he could develop into a starting SEC lineman like he has.
“One thing we have harped on at Kentucky is the way we have developed players,” Cox said. “I was a low three star (recruit), maybe even a two-star at some point. Now we are recruiting and developing four- and five-stars,” Cox said. “That is where you take the next step, not just developing players but developing highly rated players.”
He noted what freshman defensive lineman Deone Walker did in 2022 to earn all-SEC honors
“I did not even belong on the field when I was 18 or 19 (years old),” Cox said. “Guys are coming with a higher floor than they were and are continuing to work to reach an even higher ceiling. That’s why I am so excited about being part of that process.”