December 17, 2011

Miller likely to move into starting job

This is the third in a series previewing the Kentucky football team's 2012 roster by examining young players who made their mark this season. Today's installment is on the offensive line. When a core group of veteran linemen were slowed by injuries early in 2011, a handful of youngsters were forced into playing time. At least one of them will be starting full-time in 2012.

Name: Darrian Miller
Rivals 2011 recruiting rating: 3-star (5.7)
Height: 6-foot-5 Weight: 297
2012 class: True sophomore

What he did in 2011:
Miller's impact was felt early in the season rather than down the stretch, like many freshmen, but he himself as a key figure in the future of an aging offensive line. He played in every game except for the opener. Coaches raved about not only his potential as a raw youngster, but also his ability to contribute immediately. When senior right tackle Billy Joe Murhpy went down early in the season, they didn't hesitate to give the job to Miller in his stead.

Even seasoned linemen like junior guard Larry Warford said Miller has the potential to be one of the best linemen the school has ever produced. He had issues at time, particularly in pass coverage while the line as a whole surrendered a heap of sacks early in the season. But that's to be expected from such a young player making the adjustment from Kentucky high school football to the SEC.

His role diminished as the season went on and the line became healthier, but he made enough of an impact early on to pencil himself into the lineup in 2012. He was also in on the play that sprang Josh Clemons' 87-yard run against Central Michigan, probably his highlight of the season. He jumped Teven Eatmon-Nared on the depth chart soon after arriving on campus, and it doesn't look like he'll be surrendering his spot any time soon.

On the way out: Murphy has graduated, and so has starting left tackle Chandler Burden. Stuart Hines, a captain and three-year starter at guard, is also gone, along with utility lineman Jake Lanefski.

What he'll do in 2012:
Barring injury or a strange development, Miller will either be the starting right or left tackle on opening day in 2012. He'll probably compete for the left tackle job in spring ball, though a junior college transfer could nab that job. It would be a big leap of faith for the coaches to give Miller the job of protecting the blind side of Maxwell Smith or whoever ends up starting, but he's probably the best option currently on the team.

Like most freshmen, Miller will have to become more consistent in his sophomore campaign. That's especially common for an offensive lineman like Miller, who was plugged in with a veteran group that he was unfamiliar with. He gave up sacks against Central Michigan and Louisville and while that's to be expected from a youngster, he'll have to become much more solid if he's going to be the left tackle battling SEC defensive ends every week.

He was a physical run blocker, though, so right tackle might be a better fit for him anyway. Miller's role in 2012 will likely depend on who is signed late in the recruiting class and how much he improves in the spring. But he will be a major player on the offensive line in 2012 and beyond.

Also look out for:
While Miller was out on the field, fellow freshman Zach West was redshirting. Miller is all but assured of a starting spot in 2012, but West will probably have to compete with junior-to-be Kevin Mitchell for the starting guard job opposite of Warford. That said, even if he doesn't find himself in the starting lineup, he'll still have the inside track to be the top interior lineman off the bench for the Wildcats.

Eatmon-Nared is an intriguing prospect. Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips praised him for his potential during his redshirt year in 2010, and his size (6-foot-7, 332) would seem to be close to ideal for a starting tackle. But he was moved to guard after Miller passed him up, and his height could hamper him there as shorter defensive tackles could gain leverage under him. He has a good wingspan, but might not have the foot speed to ever play left tackle. Whether or not he can gain a role as a redshirt sophomore in 2012 should tell the tale for his last two years in the program.

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