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Meet the man in the middle of the Jaguars' offense: Luke Fortner
He has a master's degree in aerospace engineering. He lost a father figure of a coach at Kentucky. Now, Fortner is being trained as the brains of the Jags offense. (Yes, we also discuss aliens.)
There will be a team that takes us all by surprise in 2022.
That’s the beauty of pro football. That’s why the NFL is king.
Whereas those teams picking at the top of the NBA Draft last night know they are — bare minimum — three years away from even thinking about contending, worst-to-first stories are the norm in football. The Cincinnati Bengals made the leap last season. Perhaps a trip to the Super Bowl is a tick extreme, but count on the Jacksonville Jaguars drastically improving on their 3-14 mark.
Doug Pederson will get the most out of former No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence. We all saw him mold Carson Wentz into an MVP candidate and win a Super Bowl with Nick Foles.
The defense now boasts a pair of edge rushers — Josh Allen and Travon Walker — who will, in theory, wreck offenses together.
Travis Etienne returns from the foot injury that robbed him of his rookie season.
The front office went full Oprah in March, a smart move for any team in this predicament.
And quietly, with the 65th overall pick, the Jaguars might’ve found a long-term point man for this offense.
Kentucky’s Luke Fortner spent six years in college with Covid granting him an extra year of eligibility. But he was a busy kid in the classroom those six years, too. On the field, the 6-foot-4, 307-pounder started at both guard and center on a Wildcats team that clawed its way to SEC relevancy. Last season, they went 10-3 and beat Iowa in the Citrus Bowl. Off the field, Fortner earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering at UK. He helped design a push-cart vehicle used for the team’s pregame Cat Walk which then led to some close relationships with kids at the nearby children’s hospital.
For this latest Q&A at Go Long, we discussed how in the heck Fortner balanced football with intense engineering classes, how Kentucky turned its program around, Lawrence’s next step at quarterback, whether or not he believes aliens are spying on us all and just how much the death of his offensive line coach, John Schlarman, impacted him.
There’s a good chance Luke Fortner is the player decoding blitzes each week. This camp, he’ll compete for a starting spot at both guard and center.
Miss a past Q&A? All are archived at GoLongTD.com. Also, this conversation with Fortner is available on the Apple and Spotify podcast feeds.
What was life like growing up in Ohio. You were near Toledo, right?
Fortner: Right. So I was born in Cleveland and lived there until I was five or six and then moved over to Sylvania and grew up there. A great place to grow up, in the suburbs of Toledo. Played all kinds of travel sports as a kid. Played football and basketball in high school. I don’t think I’d go back but I’m glad I was there if that makes sense.
First, with football. How did you choose Kentucky?
Fortner: My high school coach coached with Vince Marrow at Toledo. Vince Marrow recruited me to Kentucky. He’s a special guy. A lot of MAC offers. I had Cincinnati and Marshall. Preferred walk-ons to places like Ohio State, Michigan State. Kentucky offered and Maryland offered. Those were my two Power 5 offers. I never ended up visiting Maryland. Honestly, when I thought of Kentucky, I only thought of banjos. I had the total stereotypical view of Kentucky. I grew up in Ohio. I had never been to Kentucky. I had never even been through the state. So I went down on a visit because they offered. And I met Landon Young, who’s from Kentucky and is with the Saints now. He’s like, “Well, I’ve been learning how to play the banjo.” I’m like, “I freakin’ knew it.” But I visited and fell in love with the campus and the coaches and everything about Lexington.
We talked to Lynn Bowden here. You guys probably got to know each other well.
Fortner: Absolutely. He’s probably the best athlete I’ve ever witnessed in person. Unreal.
What is he like in person? He was hurt last year, but seemed like a player who could flourish wherever you use him.
Fortner: He’s super chill. He leaves football on the field. You can talk about whatever. Super nice guy. The perfect guy to step into the role he did at Kentucky. Some of those games we won — I was talking to Grant Morgan actually, who’s with the Jags right now. We played and had Lynn Bowden at quarterback. It was silly. We went into the game without a quarterback and thought, “Whatever, we’ll figure it out.”
Fortner: Literally. Like, “Hey, block as many as you can and he’ll figure out the rest.”
When did you realize the NFL was real, that you could turn a corner and do something with this?
Fortner: For me, it honestly didn’t happen until the fourth or fifth year. So I showed up and redshirted. One of the funniest memories is when I got in the O-Line room and our O-Line coach was making a point, and he was like, “Luke, what was your GPA in high school.” I was being singled out. I was like, “4.0.” Everybody in the front row, all of the seniors, turned around like, “Why are you here? Why are you at Kentucky? Why are you playing football? You don’t need this.” I was like, “I don’t know.” I asked myself that. I guess I wanted to give it a shot. For a couple years I was a backup and redshirted, and started my fourth year. Not that I never took it seriously. I was always on time for workouts and I always gave it my all in practice. But I was always sharing half of my mental and physical self with school. And I didn’t realize how much school took out of me when it came to football until after my fifth year and I decided to go back. That spring I ended up taking one class and just every day woke up and did football. So it took a while. The NFL wasn’t on the forefront for me for a while.
Not many guys are attacking class the way you did. I went to Syracuse and can remember D-I athletes showing up that first day to get their syllabus, and we didn’t see them the rest of the semester. Not so much for you. What was your dream job before the NFL became this realistic thing? And what can you still see yourself doing? Counting your degrees, you have a degree in mechanical engineering and got your master’s in aerospace engineering. And you also have a master’s degree in business administration.
Fortner: I showed up and I had always been good at school. But I really had no idea what I wanted to do. I came in as an undecided and they said, “What are you good at?” I was like, “I’m OK at math.” Then they’re like, “Here. Try this.” It was mechanical engineering. It got to a point where I started it and everybody said, “You’re not going to be able to do both.” Or that it’d be super hard and not worth it. Then I was like, “I have to do both.” I have to prove I can do it — to myself, to whoever. There was a semester in there that was really hard. But besides that, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be or people made it sound. Kentucky was super great about tutors and coaches were super cool with, “Hey, there’s 10 minutes left of practice but I have to get to class.” Even professors were cool with, “Hey, I have to go to practice at this time. Can I leave class a little bit early?” So both sides gave and took. Everybody wanted me to succeed. That’s a huge part of it. I talked to other guys from other schools and either the academic side doesn’t let them switch things around or the football side doesn’t switch things around.
I can’t imagine playing D-I at a program on the rise — catching Kentucky on the way up — but also taking on what’s not the normal course load. What made it difficult with what you were studying?
Fortner: In the beginning it was easy to do them both really well. Taking the lower-level math classes. Being on the scout team. I could do those really well. As I transitioned to being that swing guard inside my third year who got a ton of reps but never started and, at the same time, taking this class called “Dynamics.” Pshh. Man, that semester I was like, “I don’t know if I can do these both.”
What went into that class? What made it tough?
Fortner: The professor was super cool. I really liked him. The material was just really tough. He was one of those professors who assumed everything you learned up to then you were perfect at. So he just kept going and going and going and assuming, “Oh, they know everything there is to know about X, Y and Z.” It ended up working out because he was super helpful. I could go in and ask for help. It was definitely a huge time crunch for me and ended up taking a lot of my time. My day would be wake up, work out, go to class, go to practice. Then there were nights I’d get out of practice at 6, 6:15, and then I’d just go to the library until 11, go to bed and repeat. After I made it through that semester, the senior engineering classes were a little easier. I ended up figuring it out in terms of football. For me, it was the time. Picking and choosing when I wanted to spend more time playing football and when I wanted to spend more time with school.
The aerospace stuff. What… is that exactly?
Fortner: I got to Kentucky in 2016 and graduated with my undergrad December 2019. So I knew I had one more season, a fifth year and that might be it. So I was trying to figure out what to do and I had a professor — his name was Dr. Alexandre Martin — and he became my advisor for grad school, and he said, “I know you play football. I know it’d be a super hard time crunch and I’m willing to be flexible about it. I think you’d really enjoy this master’s program.” It originally began as a master’s in mechanical engineering with a specialization in aerospace because they didn’t have the aerospace “program.” So he does a ton of work with NASA and a ton of work with private aerospace firms. He ended up giving me a project and allowing me to get my master’s in mechanical engineering with what I thought would be a year left of school and football. At the end of it, he’s like, “Hey, we just got accredited for the aerospace engineering program. You fit all the requirements. Do you want to make it that?” I was like, “That sounds awesome. Are you kidding me?” So I’m the first UK aerospace engineering grad.
What’s out there in space? What don’t we know?
Fortner: We don’t know what we don’t know.
We do know there are UFOs. The sightings are picking up and nobody is talking about it. Aliens are checking us out and nobody cares.
Fortner: The fact that nobody’s talking about it makes it even weirder.
We’re worried about nonsense and trivial bullshit every day and the aliens could just take us out. They’re probably listening to this conversation.
Fortner: I know. They’re probably the ones making us talk about all the bullshit. They know what they’re doing.
I know it was engineering, but would you let your mind go to that kind of stuff in space?
Fortner: Absolutely. Some of the projects I didn’t necessarily work on but people in the same lab were working on — I mean all kinds of propulsion systems, hypersonic, super cool stuff. I was like, “Wow. I’m glad I don’t have that project to do.” They do some super interesting stuff. That’s like going to Mars, going to other solar systems type of stuff.
Explain space to me as if I was eight years old. How insignificant and tiny are we on earth?
Fortner: You know how they say you’re like a grain of sand compared to the universe. I think it’s now to the point of, “No, you’re even less than that.” I don’t know what it is, but it’s ridiculous. I heard something the other day — I don’t know if this is true — but if you made the time humans have been on earth into a calendar, like 365 days, we would’ve discovered the wheel on like December 28th.
How did you get involved with Toyota Manufacturing, “Lift Them Up” and the pushcart vehicle for the children’s hospital?
Fortner: We had a community engagement guy named Freddie Maggard. He reached out and had a good friend who worked at Toyota. They saw things like Iowa, where they wave, and Toyota had the idea of something we could take on the cat walk with us — with someone from the children’s hospital, a fan, whoever it may be. They reached out to the university and football. So community engagement comes to me and says, “Hey, I’ve got something you might be interested in.” … So I went to the first meeting for it in the first week of January and they wanted us to have it ready by the season. I’m sitting in that meeting like, “There’s no way this gets done. Too many people have to be on board for this to happen.” Of course, it ends up working out. They came to me and four other engineering students. Toyota said, “Here’s what it needs to do. Now, you guys speck it out. Figure out what it needs to look like. What should the chassis be made out of, what should the brakes be, what should the wheels be, all that. So we all came up with it, and then Toyota was like, “Yes. No. Maybe. This is why this will work. This is why this won’t work.” It was a super cool learning experience. We met a ton of people from Toyota. We came up with the final plan, and then they built it. We had a guy on the team who designed it and did the art work on the outside. So it was a super cool experience for us to learn about engineering.
After that, I said “This is awesome. I want to do more.” So we visited the children’s hospital weekly. And when Covid hit, we’d Zoom and send videos. I really fell in love with that and that was probably my favorite part of being at Kentucky.
Who are you meeting? Imagine some of the kids you get to know strike an emotional chord along the way.
Fortner: It’s bittersweet. You meet some kids with a broken arm. That’s always a fun experience because they’re pumped to see you. Then you see some kids who have more than a broken arm or maybe it’s not their first visit to the hospital. Maybe they haven’t left the hospital. And those are hard. Really hard. But those are the ones that make it worth it. Just to see some of those kids smile. We talk to the parents after. The parents walk you out. They’ll say stuff like, “That’s the first time he smiled in three weeks.” Stuff like that blows your mind, makes it all worth it and puts it into perspective. I do it for a selfish reason. It makes me feel better about everything I have going on. It makes me feel blessed and lucky to be doing what I’m doing. There are only so many opportunities in your life you can give back like that.
Did you get to know some of these kids regularly? As a recurring figure in their lives to build a relationship?
Fortner: Oh yeah. There are a few I’m BFFs with now. Unfortunately, I’d see them all the time. Or maybe I’d see them once and they’d end up coming to a game.
Does all of this stuff off the field — what you studied — help you on the offensive line? We think of offensive linemen as grunts in the trenches mashing into other 300-pounders. But the more I talk to players like Richie Incognito, and everybody has an opinion of Richie Incognito, but you talk to him and he’s one of the smartest humans I’ve ever met. … Being a smart guy yourself, your mind is operating at a different level. How does it help you with your day job now?
Fortner: The biggest thing for me is the amount of information I can put away. It doesn’t always translate right away. A lot of people think, “Oh you’re so smart. You’ll go out there Day 1 and know exactly what you’re doing.” No. Not even close. For me, you give me the offense and the film and I can put that information away in my mind, just like I did for every single engineering (class). Store it in the back of my head. I promise in seven or eight months, whatever it is, I can pull that random bullshit thing from June 7 out that someone else may not be able to. My Mom used to make fun of my Dad. She’d call it “random bullshit.” I have that same genetic quality for whatever reason. Instead of random bullshit, it’s “Alright, they’re bringing this pressure, this play, on the right hash.” Something stupid like that has given me that advantage.
The center has to be one of, if not the smartest player on the field. You need a grasp of all the pressures. This is your first year. This is the first time you’re seeing NFL defenses. How confident are you to walk up to that line and know what’s coming?
Fortner: A big part of it was watching the centers I had at Kentucky. Drake Jackson played center when I was guard for three years before I moved over. And he was really frickin’ good at it. I’m confident that when gameday comes I’ll be ready. I’m confident in my ability to prepare. These coaches have it down to such a science. They’ll hand you a tape with 600 plays and if you know that you’ll be alright. So, I think it’s confidence in my ability to prepare for it.
Are you that calm or is this a façade? We’ll stop the interview and you’ll go back to freaking out?
Fortner: I will say that being calm makes me nervous. I feel like I should be, “Oh, shit!” I take comfort in knowing I know I will be OK. New head coach. New offense. New place to live. Everything. I’m confident in what I’ve done and what I will do that when it comes time, I’ll be alright. Another thing that helps is the fact that the offense is new for everyone. I’ve heard horror stories of guys going into camps and they’ve run the same offense. You look at New England, and they’ve been running the same offense for 20 years. That would be awful. Because everybody’s using terms that aren’t even in the playbook. Here, everybody’s learning. Obviously the vets have picked it up super quicker than I did, but at the same time, they’re like, “Hey, I was struggling with that three weeks ago. Here’s how I think of it.”
Everything’s new for everybody. Thank God after what this team went through last year. What’s Doug (Pederson) like — as a leader, day to day, and what’s his offense like?
Fortner: He reminds me of Coach (Mark) Stoops a lot in terms of, he’s a player’s coach. But the one thing I learned at Kentucky was “do it right, do it light.” There’s no point in repping something a million times if it’s crap every single time. There’s so many people I talk to that say that’s what they did in high school or college. They just do endless reps for what feels like no reason. Kentucky is, “if you do it right, we’ll do it a few times until you got it and then if you do it like crap we’ll do something else and it’s probably on us.” I think taking responsibility is a huge thing. Coach Pederson, I’ve known him for a few weeks now but he already gives off that aura of confidence.
All eyes will be on your quarterback. It could go either way. What gives you the belief in Trevor Lawrence that everything we saw at Clemson — we all saw him dominate — is in there?
Fortner: That’s a great question. If I knew that I’d be sitting next to Doug right now. He is as calm in person as he is on TV when you see him in those moments. The National Championship Game. And last year. I think him and Doug have a lot in common. I think they’ve tried to build around him with that same idea in mind. I think it’s “preparation breeds confidence.” Everyone embodies that, especially Trevor and Coach Pederson. They’re not worried about what’s going to happen in six weeks or 10 weeks. They’re worried about this week and how they can change the outcome right now. I think for Trevor — and I’ve known him for six weeks and seen what everyone else has seen on TV — he just has that aura of confidence and calmness that not only inspires himself but everyone around him.
It’s one of those things that everybody is probably saying about every quarterback, especially this time of year. But if it’s real then it’s a quality not every quarterback has. We saw this out of Trevor Lawrence in college.
Fortner: You’ll have to check back in 20 weeks and I’ll let you know.
That’s what great about the NFL. Any team can manufacture real hope. You can’t get that in the NBA, baseball or even hockey to an extent. You can’t sit there in the offseason and say, “Hey, maybe we’ll make the playoffs this year.” The Jaguars could make the playoffs. That’s not too outlandish of a thing to say.
Fortner: Look at the Bengals. Anyone can do it.
How do you do it? That’s what every team is hoping — to make that Bengals-sized leap. They did it. You’ve got a quarterback who’s super talented like they had a quarterback who was super talented. How do you do that? What are the ingredients that go into that kind of jump?
Fortner: It’s so cliched but it’s so cliched for a reason: One day at a time. A lot of people like to say, “You win in the offseason.” That’s true. But if you try to do too much right now, you’re not going to get anything out of it. No one’s going to learn the fundamentals they need to learn. No one’s going to learn the plays they need to learn. Another big thing I took from Kentucky was just that capacity. When Coach Stoops came in, in 2012, people didn’t have the capacity mentally or physically to do what it takes to be a winning program. Because they don’t know. They’ve never been around it. When I got to Kentucky — from 2016 to when I left in 2022 — the difference in workouts, the difference in meetings, the difference in practice is just night and day. So I think for the Jaguars as a whole, it’s building that capacity. You start small. You start with building peoples’ mental abilities, building peoples’ physical abilities so that maybe in OTAs you’re doing one thing but by the time the season comes everybody’s operating at such a higher level. It’s night and day. Coach Pederson understands that and that’s where he’s looking to take this.
I tend to forget how you guys did this in the SEC. For the longest time, Kentucky is not sniffing anything in that conference.
Fortner: My first game at Kentucky, we lost to Southern Miss at home. I’ve been at the bottom. I’ve been at the top. It was a turnaround.
What do you like to do off the field?
Fortner: Now, I’m trying to learn how to golf because everybody in Jacksonville golfs. That’s No. 1 on the list. I have done disc golf. But apparently that’s not the same thing. Play a ton of video games. Total nerd. Love to read. I always say that if I didn’t play football I’d be your stereotypical nerd behind a computer screen 24/7. Football drags me away for sure. I like to travel. I love visiting national parks.
Fortner: My favorite one so far is Zion National Park in Utah. I’ve been to Yellowstone, Zion, Rice Canyon, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, Petrified Forest, Mammoth Cave, the Everglades and I’m missing one. I think there’s 63.
I would’ve been a history major. If I knew the NFL was going to work out, for sure, I definitely would’ve just done history in college.
What do you like to read?
Fortner: I’m all over the place. I love the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all that stuff. And then nonfiction, geography, literally anything under the sun.
Audiobooks are great for a busy guy like you.
Fortner: I’m more into podcasts. “Hardcore History” with Dan Carlin. The best podcast out there. If you like history, you will love it. I listened to the History of Rome podcast which is a 200-episode thing on the history of Rome. It was one of those I started, said “I’m never going to finish this,” and the next thing I knew I was at 100.
So many podcasts let your brain relax and go to weird places. You can learn something, too.
Fortner: Every day’s a school day.
What else should folks know about you?
Fortner: Our offensive line coach died in 2020 at Kentucky. His name was John Schlarman. He recruited me. He coached me. He was like a second father to me. He taught me more about life than football.
Fortner: For me, he’d always talk about persistence and when the going gets tough, keep on keeping on. He’d always say that stuff before he had cancer. It was like, “OK. Alright, coach. Whatever you say.” And then he was diagnosed with cancer. And the whole time, he just embodied everything he always talked about. Maybe everybody in the world would practice what they preach, but it’s not an easy thing to do. So for him to be diagnosed, he came in and said, “If I miss a few days the next few weeks, don’t be worried. I’ll be getting chemo.” We’re like, “What?” He brushed over it. For the first year, you couldn’t really tell. You didn’t really notice much. Covid happened and that really took a toll. He didn’t get to go to work every day. He was stuck at home and ended up losing a ton of weight. We came back from Covid and he was like a different person.
I remember in camp, in 2020, they would bring a golf cart out for him to sit on. And he’d be like, “Get that away from me. I’m not sitting down.” It’s the middle of August and over 100 degrees and he wants to fight through. He’d go over, puke on the sideline, and come back, and start yelling again. I remember one day he had to go to the hospital because he was not feeling great. We were all a little nervous and we go to practice and, in the middle of practice, you see him running down the steps to the practice field. Stoops had to go over and tell him, “Get your ass home right now or I’ll fire you.” He loved us. He loved his job. He practiced what he preached all those years to us about working hard. “Keep chopping wood” was his thing.
And then it was the middle of the season. We went to Missouri and he couldn’t make the trip. We had a brutal loss to Missouri. We played like crap. I just remember sitting on the sideline with Eddie Gran, our OC. It was him and I just crying because he wasn’t there. Obviously we played like shit but that wasn’t the saddest part of the day. We played Georgia and then we had a bye week and then Vanderbilt. I remember I rolled my ankle against Georgia and the week of Vanderbilt, he was in the hospital so we went to see him. His parents were there in the hospital with him. That hits different. That’s for sure. You have his parents and his kids both in the hospital with him. It shouldn’t happen like that. That Thursday before we played Vanderbilt he ended up passing away. The worst part was he would be livid that we took time out of our practice week to have a memorial service for him. He’d be like, “What the hell are you guys doing?” So we took a penalty for him against Vanderbilt. We left a spot open on the line for him. It was brutal. It was a tough time. We banded together as an offensive line.
I’m not going to say he’s the reason I came back for a sixth year. I remember telling someone — they asked, “Are you coming back for a sixth year?” (I said) “There’s only one man that’d get me to do that and he’s not here anymore.” And then I ended up doing it anyway. But I definitely play with him in my mind all the time and keep in touch with his family. He had a big impact on me.
The stories were legendary when he passed. I didn’t know much about John Schlarman as an outsider. Being around him, day-in and day-out, what’s your best story? He was a wild man. He was intense.
Fortner: He was intense. The best story that I can share with you is probably… I just remember getting absolutely ripped one day in a meeting. It was my redshirt freshman year. You’ve been there long enough, so you should figure it out by now. I was getting absolutely chewed out. At the time, I was the guy who was always getting chewed out. I was starting to feel sorry for myself and taking it kind of personal. After the meeting, I was like, “Coach, why am I always…” and he was like, “Dude. You know that means I love you, right? I don’t just yell at anybody.” He put his arm around me. That was one thing I’ll always remember. He taught me that when you stop getting yelled at, when you stop being coached, that’s when you should worry. Not when you’re getting your ass ripped. He loved his players every day and loved what he did.
Way too young. Forty-five. He was battling a really rare form of cancer, too?
Fortner: I’m pretty sure it was Stage 3 or Stage 4 when he found it. For a solid year, he was doing pretty well. And I think Covid mentally more than anything took a toll on him. Work was his escape. Being with us.
How did you get the news? Was it a shock?
Fortner: Once we visited him in the hospital, it was pretty tough. There’s a story. We’re in the hospital and I rolled my ankle against Georgia. So it’s the bye week and we’re in the hospital. I wasn’t practicing or whatever. He’s like, “Why aren’t you practicing?” Because he’d sit there and watch the film. He had an iPad. They’d send it to him and he’d watch it. I said, “Ah, I rolled my ankle.” He looked at me with that look — he’s sitting there with tubes everywhere, it was awful — and he’s like, “I’m here doing this and you can’t?” So when that happened, we all kind of knew. Stoops called me and when I saw his name pop up on the phone I knew what it was.
Imagine that will leave an imprint on you as much as any class, any game, anything you built engineering-wise — anything in college — these last six years.
Fortner: One-thousand percent.
He probably was the reason you came back for that sixth year.
Fortner: I was thinking about him all the time. What’s funny is Drake Jackson, our old center, he was All-SEC and played center for four years. He didn’t make it in the NFL because he was a little undersized. He texted me after I got drafted and said, “Schlarman’s rolling in his grave thinking he played the wrong guy at center for four years. I thought that was hilarious.