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Media Days reps show success, leadership begin in the trenches

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Collins Ukwu, Matt Smith and Larry Warford represented UK at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. (Photo by Padraic Major) Collins Ukwu, Matt Smith and Larry Warford represented UK at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. (Photo by Padraic Major)
HOOVER, Ala. -- Matt Smith, Larry Warford and Collins Ukwu were something of an oddity at Southeastern Conference Media Days this week. Most of the other players representing their teams at the conference's unofficial kickoff are accustomed to making highlight reels with electrifying catches, punishing runs or even incredible pass breakups.

Meanwhile, Smith, Warford and Ukwu have touched the football just three times in their combined 11 years at UK - all fumble recoveries by Ukwu. The three Wildcats accounted for over a quarter of the 11 linemen in attendance in Hoover, Ala., and while their counterparts rack up touchdowns and yards, the UK trio will be thinking about playing assignments when the 2012 season starts.

SEC Media Days was a brief foray into the spotlight for three players accustomed to battling at the line of scrimmage. It was also a symbol of where success will start for this UK team.

"You see a lot of quarterbacks and wide receivers, running backs," said Ukwu, a defensive end. "We're just three linemen that don't get a lot of media attention. This is a fun experience and we feel like, for our team, the trenches will be important for us being successful."

The significance of line play in the SEC goes without saying. A season ago, UK's offensive line was expected to be the strength of the team. Its struggles due to injury, among other things, were a central reason for the Cats inability to consistently move the ball. On the other end of the spectrum, it was the progress of the defensive line that laid the foundation for the defense's best two efforts of the year to close out the season against Georgia and Tennessee.

Beyond that, the three seniors are being asked to fill a crucial leadership role. The fact that they were selected to represent their teammates this week is no accident.

"I like to believe it's our leadership abilities (that caused Joker Phillips to choose the three)," Warford said. "I guess he appreciates that. I do try to do what's best for the team. Him choosing me is a great honor."

Warford and Smith, in particular, will be vital. Penciled in at right guard and center, respectively, Warford and Smith have started a combined 47 games. With a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and a redshirt junior in Darrian Miller, Zach West and Kevin Mitchell who have made three combined starts projected at the other three spots, Warford and Smith will be asked to be the unit's anchors.

"They've done a really good job from what we've been hearing of leading the troops this summer, especially the offensive linemen," Phillips said of the two seniors. "This is going into their third year with (offensive line) Coach (Mike) Summers, so they understand all the drills. They understand how he teaches."

Warford and Smith are well aware of their role and wasted no time in undertaking it.

"Larry and myself, especially on the o-line, took it on ourselves to try and be the coach, try and be the replacement for Coach Summers in the film room and on the field," Smith said. "We're going to need a lot of these young guys this season. We're trying to be leaders out there and lead in our own way."

Warford has certainly evolved into a leader. A pre-season All-SEC selection by both coaches and media, the 6-foot-3, 343 pounder has been a solid performer throughout his career, but his teammates have noticed a change in him this offseason.

"Since I've been here, Larry has been a quiet guy that just plays and does well," Ukwu said. "Now he's being more of a vocal leader and just bringing the young guys along with him."

According to Warford, early returns have been positive.

"The guys coming in don't have much experience," Warford said. "During this offseason, all we've been doing is getting the best prepared that we can to get ready for that. Me and Matt are working hard to get the linemen on the same page. So far, I believe the young guys are doing great. They're so good, so attentive, so focused and I'm just so impressed with how much they're into it."

The offensive line isn't the only group where youth will be served on this team. Among the 44 players listed as first and second string on offense and defense, 26 are freshmen or sophomores. That number doesn't even include UK's incoming freshman class. Entering his 10th season as an assistant or head coach since returning to UK in 2003, Phillips sees precedent for that kind of youth movement.

"To me that's similar '05 when we had 24 (freshmen and sophomores on the two-deep depth chart) and '06 when we started this streak of five bowl games," Phillips said. "We had 24 in both of those. From top to bottom, we might have a little bit more athletes in those 26."

Considering those numbers, the defensive line is a departure from the rest of the team. Talented youngsters like Farrington Huguenin, Mike Douglas and Christian Coleman are expected to be backups, but the listed starters (Ukwu, Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Taylor Wyndam) are all upperclassmen with plenty of experience.

Ukwu can remember well what it was like as a freshman and sophomore and is still benefiting from the lessons taught to him by his predecessors.

"Jeremy Jarmon, Corey Peters, DeQuin Evans," Ukwu said. "These are guys that I look up to and I said, 'I want to be that type of guy when it's my time to be a senior or a junior.' All of these qualities that you see now, it's just reflecting from them."

For Ukwu, leadership is more than just a buzzword.

"It's not even making every play," Ukwu said. "It's doing the right thing and being a professional at what you do. You got to think that everybody's looking at you every day, even off the field, especially the young guys that are around you. You want to do everything right even though it is hard to do."

Ukwu watches his understudies and sees a group of young players even more advanced in their development than he was at the same point. That both gives him a sense of responsibility to lead and enthusiasm for what the future holds.

"That's something that you're excited to see, because when you leave here the program is in good hands," Ukwu said.

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