When Kansas University coach Turner Gill took over the KU football program last December, many talked about his luxury of returning a talented and experienced offensive line.
Eight months later, it appears that two of the five linemen who made people talk that way may start the season on the sideline.
Junior Jeff Spikes is out for the season because of an injury to his Achilles’ tendon. We know that for sure. But based on what was shown at Tuesday’s practice, it looks as if fellow-junior Jeremiah Hatch, who appears bigger and is listed 21 pounds heavier than he was a season ago, has been relegated to second string, with Tanner Hawkinson, Duane Zlatnik, Sal Capra, Trevor Marrongelli and Brad Thorson running with the first unit throughout practice.
Of that group, Zlatnik may be the biggest surprise. Hawkinson’s a preseason All-Big 12 pick at left tackle. Thorson, a likely captain, has been called the leader of the unit. And Capra and Marrongelli both have a blue-collar mentality and starting experience.
Zlatnik, a 6-foot-4, 326-pound former defensive lineman from nearby Rossville, has earned his way onto the first unit by impressing Gill with a mix of quickness and strength.
“He’s really improved,” Gill said before Tuesday’s practice. “He’s probably one of the guys who has made the most improvement from the spring, when I first saw him, to where he is today. I really like what he’s doing. Early on he was a little slow but, man, he’s picked up some great pace, and my hat’s off to coach (J.B.) Grimes, who’s done a really good job with the offensive line. We’re just putting the pieces together, and hopefully we can find seven or eight guys who can play some pretty good football for us at the offensive line position.”
Whether Zlatnik earns the right to start or not — something that may not be known for several more days — it seems pretty obvious that he’s going to play. A lot.
Thus far, Zlatnik has spent most of his time at left guard, playing between Capra at center and Hawkinson at left tackle. Both guys have done wonders for his transition to the new position, which actually happened midway through the 2009 season but never really got off the ground.
“I’d never played O-line before so I didn’t really know what to expect,” Zlatnik said. “I got switched in the middle of the year last year and didn’t really learn any techniques last year. The first time I started doing it was this spring and now it’s just coming together.”
Asked if he thought then that he’d have a chance to start now, Zlatnik said he didn’t even entertain such possibilities.
“I didn’t know,” he said. “I just wanted to come in and work as hard as I could.”
Clearly, he’s done that, and it hasn’t hurt his standing with Gill, a coach that consistently has rewarded hard work and discipline.
Of course, beyond those intangibles, the players that will log the most time for Gill’s Jayhawks this fall also must possess a certain amount of talent. Gill believes Zlatnik has plenty.
“I love his size,” Gill said. “He moves really well for 300-plus pounds. We’ll do different things with the guard, sometimes pull him, sometimes do some things on the line of scrimmage. But you gotta have guys who are strong enough to take on D-tackles who are 300-plus pounds, and he has the ability to do that.”
As for the rest of the line, Thorson, who missed several weeks with a broken foot, returned to practice Monday and slowly will be worked back into the mix. Hawkinson, Capra and Marrongelli have been steady, and a few others have drawn praise, as well.
“There’s been some great competition by our entire offensive line,” Gill said. “Hatch is doing OK, Zlatnik’s doing well. Another guy who’s made some good progress is (red-shirt freshman) Riley Spencer, who’s playing a tackle spot for us. If I had to say one or two guys, from spring until today, who have made good progress, it’s Zlatnik and Spencer and even Alex Smith.”
Gill isn’t the only one to have noticed. Sophomore quarterback Kale Pick, one of two guys vying for the starting QB job, also has fallen in love with what the offensive line has done in front of him.
“We have a lot of depth there,” Pick said. “That’s probably the position that we have the most depth on our entire offense right now.”
Asked if he’s noticed the cohesiveness that all good offensive lines tend to have, Pick continued his praise.
“I think they’re pretty close,” he said. “What really helped us was the heat. During that tough week in the heat, that really helped our communication skills as a team. As a quarterback, when guys get back to the huddle, it’s your job to remind them to keep working and keep them going and, last week, the line really started to do that to themselves.”