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Silent example of linemen leads offensive resurgence

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Guards Stuart Hines and Larry Warford anchor an offensive line that has played its best football in UK's last three games. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Guards Stuart Hines and Larry Warford anchor an offensive line that has played its best football in UK's last three games. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
A month ago, optimism wasn't running high on a Kentucky team and a Wildcat offense that had dropped four games in a row.

His team outscored 161-37 over the span, head coach Joker Phillips declared the next six games a "second season," but getting the Cats to turn the page on a 2-4 start and focus on the rest of 2011 wouldn't be easy, even with a bye week to prepare.

Buying in to Phillips' approach without a second thought was a veteran offensive line that had struggled as much as any other unit on the team. Maybe they aren't the type of rah-rah, get-in-your-face kind of guys that are generally thought of as leaders in football, but their steadiness came to inspire the rest of the team.

"Their ability to come and practice hard every day has been the leadership the offense needed," offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "Their ability to put their hands in the dirt, come off the ball and practice when things looked bleak gave motivation to everyone out here. Those guys aren't generally vocal in terms of leadership, but they lead by example."

Following the example set by the offensive line, the Wildcats have rallied to two wins in their last three games to move to 4-5 on the season. Heading into a road matchup with Vanderbilt (4-5, 1-5 Southeastern Conference), UK has strung together its best offensive performances of the year, principally driven by an offensive line finally playing the way so many expected it to entering the season.

Even though the unit of Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines, Matt Smith, Larry Warford and Billy Joe Murphy had plenty of experience playing together, inconsistency and injuries throughout the preseason and early part of the schedule prevented the line from developing any sort of continuity. UK allowed 21 sacks and 48 tackles for loss in the season's first six games.

Even in the face of those struggles, the linemen never allowed those injuries to be an excuse for their play. Instead, they responded by maintaining their work ethic on the practice field and in the film room. Having rolled up 1,150 yards and 84 points the last three games, their approach has paid of.

"I think we have a lot of pride," Hines said. "We come out here and put a lot of hard work. We put a lot of work in the film room and study hard. It's nice to see it paying off now."

Summers watched as his linemen coped with injury and he saw the toll those early struggles took on a group that cares so much about the team's success, which makes seeing the way they've turned things around that much more rewarding.

"They have a tremendous amount of pride," Summers said. "They're great people with great character to start with. They care about the University of Kentucky and being successful. It's important to them to execute well so everyone else can have success. They take it personally when our offense doesn't do well. Their production has improved every game and I've been extremely proud of who they are and how they've played."

Throwing a wrench into things a couple weeks ago was the injury to quarterback Morgan Newton against Mississippi State. All of a sudden, the Wildcats went from having an experienced junior under center to a true freshman, Maxwell Smith, who had never made a start and only played a few series in a pair of blowouts against South Carolina and Louisiana State. Fortunately, their experience allowed for a seamless transition.

"They understand that some things might not be as smooth in the huddle or as smooth at the line of scrimmage as they might be with a more experienced quarterback," Summers said. "Because we have guys with experience up there, they don't get frustrated by that. They understand that's the way it is and it forces them to do a better job communicating and understanding what's expected from them."

If anything, Smith's insertion has only raised the line's level of play. In a 30-13 win over Ole Miss last Saturday, Smith was sacked only once and CoShik Williams once again exceeded 100 yards rushing.

"It puts a premium on our protections because we have to give him time," Hines said. "It might give him a split second longer to read the coverages or whatever so we have to give him that time. We just said we need to keep him clean and keep him off the ground."

Smith used the extra time given to him to throw the ball downfield unlike UK has all season. His first half attempts were a bit overthrown, but a pair of long completions to La'Rod King all but sealed the Wildcats' victory.

"They're motivated by the production Max has been able to generate," Summers said.

Smith and the offensive line will be tested by an attacking Vanderbilt defense. The Commodores have already matched their total from a year ago with 18 sacks while their pressure on opposing quarterbacks has also helped generate 15 interceptions.

"They're a high pressure team defense," Summers said. "They bring pressure on just about every snap. Their philosophy is to hit your quarterback and against every team they've played, they have done that. It's a huge challenge for us, first of all, to find out where they are, because they're coming from every angle, and then to stay in front of them, because they play with great effort and technique."

If the last three weeks are any indication, the Wildcats will meet this challenge head on.

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