So big and so raw, Jeff Spikes projected as an offensive lineman who would need five years of practice and four years of game experience to maximize his potential.
Spikes red-shirted his first year at Kansas, but will leave having practiced just four years and having played just three. An injury last season short-changed him. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound native of Painesville, Ohio, missed all of last season after suffering one of the most painful injuries in sports, a torn Achilles.
All he could do last season was watch teammates practice and attend meetings run by line coach J.B. Grimes, at which Spikes said he learned plenty. Still, what a tough break for the senior good-guy left tackle who in 2008 earned Phil Steele third-team Freshman All-American honors. Another year of building strength and refining the nuances of his position could have helped his chances of impressing NFL scouts.
Unlike former Kansas University running back Angus Quigley, who received a sixth season after applying for a medical redshirt, Spikes’ season was lost.
“They said to receive a medical redshirt, I would have had to have two season-ending injuries,” Spikes said. “The first red-shirt season wasn’t injury-related. Angus’ injuries required him to red-shirt twice. It is what it is. I knew that the day I injured myself. Ever since then, I looked at this being my last year and I’ll enjoy it knowing it’s my last year.”
So far, enjoy it he has because he’s part of KU’s most improved unit. The offensive line faces a much tougher test Saturday against Georgia Tech than in the first two games. The defensive linemen he’ll be matched against will be bigger, stronger and quicker than those he blocked from McNeese State and Northern Illinois.
“I always look forward to playing a better opponent,” Spikes said. “Every week our opponent has gotten better and better and better and that’s nothing but a blessing for me to have a higher challenge every week. It’s not something I’m going to shy away from at all.”
The timing of the injury means that Spikes, who in some ways is still somewhat green, also is rusty.
“I just have to keep making myself better, more consistent,” Spikes said. “The rust is still there, but I have to make it to where it’s invisible and other people don’t notice.”
Spikes figures to be better five weeks from now than today, but his return already has made the line better. Tanner Hawkinson is performing better at right tackle than left. Center Jeremiah Hatch, not as heavy and healthier, has bounced back from a disappointing season. Left guard Trevor Marongelli so far has graded out better than in 2010.
But it’s right guard Duane Zlatnik who has improved the most. A defensive lineman until last season, Zlatnik, 6-4, 305, wowed teammates with 22 knockdowns in the season-opener and matched that total in Week 2.
“He’s a dominant force,” Spikes said. “He’s powerful. He’s strong. He’s able to stay low. He’s using his wrestling background and well as his football experience to get those knockdowns and he’s just dominating.”
Spikes echoed the sentiment of the entire offensive line: “I’m proud of our line, but not comfortable, not satisfied.”