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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pleasant surprise: O-lineman Zlatnik seizing opportunity at left guard

Kansas university offensive lineman Duane Zlatnik lines up head-to-head with his teammates during practice on Tuesday at the KU practice fields. Zlatnik has made a good impression at fall camp and has received an extensive look at left guard.

Kansas university offensive lineman Duane Zlatnik lines up head-to-head with his teammates during practice on Tuesday at the KU practice fields. Zlatnik has made a good impression at fall camp and has received an extensive look at left guard.

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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.”

Comments

John Randall 4 years, 2 months ago

Gee whiz! Big, strong guys who work their butts off make good football players – whodathunk?

From a few hours away, through reports like this, I'm starting to think our new coaching staff has what it takes – for the long haul, at least. Maybe my cynical nature is taking the day off when I think short-term prospects aren't all that dire, either.

KGphoto 4 years, 2 months ago

Get a facemask Zlatnik. You look like you play wide receiver.

Am I the only one who misses the full face mask for lineman? Linebackers started this trend of smaller, and smaller shields. I used to be able to tell the position of a player by it. Now they all have the same, exact mask.

They look weak, especially for a lineman. These days, the lineman look like linebackers, and linebackers look like cornerbacks.

Please, go back to the full-length mask. Put a bar down the middle too. It just looks more intimidating. While you're at it, give me some old-school neck rolls and eye black. Utilize the tools of intimidation!

Viva la Steel Curtain!!

youowethehawks 4 years, 2 months ago

I always hated those damned bars in the middle of the face mask and always had them switched out for a 3 bar mask instead of those ridiculous 5 or 6 bar monstrosities. Old school neck rolls are the shiz-night, however.

If you want intimidation, be 6'4" and 326 lbs, then punch a guy in the gut a few times, knock him over and then lay out the linebacker. If the DT feels his stomach flip, and watches you bowl over his linebacker from his backside, he'll be plenty intimidated. That is, if the DT has the mental capacity for emotion.

rolo2383 4 years, 2 months ago

No offense KG but who cares about a facemask. It doesn't change who the player is or how they play.

“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.”

I love how the players get these little jabs in at the old staff. It seems like every interview with a player they throw in a subtle jab.

omari1911 4 years, 2 months ago

I agree, Rolo. Barfield was a little more explicit in an interview found at Rivals.com recently:

"The main difference might be the new found comfort level Barfield enjoys on the field, which a lot of that has to do with the new coaching staff.

'You don't have coaches down your neck every time you make a bad play," Barfield said. "You just go out there and play fast and make plays. If you mess up then you mess up. They aren't going to try and embarrass you out on the field.'

Jaminrawk 4 years, 2 months ago

I seriously hope the O-Line improves a lot this year. Last year they were a problem. We couldn't run to save our lives and Todd got banged up a lot.

orbiter 4 years, 2 months ago

I agree, playing with less face protection makes you look weak. If he wrapped a body pillow around his head he would look like Satan's best assassin.

KCHawk81 4 years, 2 months ago

For now, I trust J.B. Grimes to make that assessment. The staff has been high on Zlatnik all summer. Hatch is solid, but it's sounded like he's done better pass-blocking than run-blocking--which makes sense if he's heavier than he should be. I think both will be fine, and I like hearing that we have more talented O-linemen than we need.

JBurtin 4 years, 2 months ago

I like Hatch, but there's no doubt that you need someone with good speed off the ball for run blocking. It's more of a difference in the system than a problem with the player.

yovoy 4 years, 2 months ago

Yeah, talent is only slightly more important than having personnel that fit a system or a situation.

As I've been saying that people drop-off and others step up for a long time, but I haven't ever said it as much as I have lately in reference to this new-look program.

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