October 5, 2011

Offensive line taking steps forward after slow start

A few weeks ago, offensive line coach Mike Summers wasn't a guy you wanted to run across on the practice field.

He's always been an intense coach, but the disappointing play of his unit to that point made him hotter than a California wildfire.

"He was just on us, every day, every second," junior guard Larry Warford said. "He knows what we can do. He's seen what we have the potential to do, because we are the guys who played last year. He's really been on us about the job we've been doing."

But as his veteran offensive line began to heat up, Summers cooled off - if only a bit. The offensive line, which returned five of its top six players from last year before a rash of injuries in fall camp shook up the lineup, has taken steps forward recently, Summers said.

There's still plenty of work to be done and the unit still isn't performing at the level Summers expected it would before the season, but they've been moving forward. The Wildcats have had all five starters healthy for the last two games, and they don't have any linemen on the injury report this week.

"I think having those guys back together has made everything up front a little bit better," Summers said. "Now we're working on all of us being together and working with each other that should have been accomplished in fall camp but wasn't."

Even when starters Billy Joe Murphy and Matt Smith returned after missing game time, there wasn't a big jump in the line's play, Summers said. But it's been incremental every week, and he's counting on them to take another step forward on Saturday.

While preparing for South Carolina, Kentucky head coach Joker Phillips was examining film of last year's upset over the Gamecocks. He noticed that UK was using the same five linemen in that game they'll start on Saturday in Columbia.

"We did some really, really good things," Phillips said. "We opened up some gaping holes, protected the quarterback, so I pointed that out to our guys. We have to get back to that level and we're getting closer and closer every week."

Watching the film might have made Phillips feel better, but it didn't make Murphy, a senior right tackle, any more comfortable.

"It's a new team, new surroundings," he said. "We're playing down there this time, so we'll have to communicate a lot better. They've got a few different players."

The most hyped new player they'll face this week is Jadeveon Clowney, a 6-6, 254-pound freshman defensive end who was the No. 1 recruit in the country last year. He's already second in the Southeastern Conference with four sacks.

The Gamecocks also have the SEC leader in sacs and tackles for loss in senior defensive end Melvin Ingram, who has 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He's listed as doubtful for the game Saturday, but South Carolina can also rotate in junior defensive end Devin Taylor, who had 7.5 sacks last season.

UK has surrendered 21 sacks this season, tied for worst in the nation among FBS schools and already seven more sacks than they gave up in the 2010 regular season. With all that firepower coming off the edge, the Gamecocks might have the toughest defensive line the Wildcats have faced this year.

"You wouldn't get an argument from me," Summers said. "It's amazing to watch how fast they are and how big they are and how well they understand the game."

UK's 31-28 win over South Carolina in 2010 was one of two games Murphy started at right tackle, meaning the Wildcats will have the same offensive line this year. The offense rolled to 401 yards of offense that game and converted 9 of 19 third downs in that contest.

Summers will be looking for the same kind of dominant performance in this year's game - the same kind of dominant performance he's expected from the line all season.

"Being dominant basically wins the game for you on the offensive line," Warford said. "It gives you the will to do whatever you want. Run the ball, pass the ball, and they can't do anything about it if you're dominant."

Even if that doesn't happen, another step forward would still be encouraging, though.

"I think we have a lot of work to do to be there," Summers said. "Unfortunately, with some of the good defenses we've been playing, we could be a whole lot better and still not see a lot of production. But I am encouraged with the direction we're going."

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