The University of Kentucky offensive line has answered the bell every week in 2010.
Facing a speedy and athletic Florida defensive line, the Wildcats gave up just one sack, which came after the outcome had been decided and UK was forced to drop back and pass just about every down.
The next week they faced a Mississippi defensive front that had been among the Southeastern Conference leaders in sacks and kept quarterback Mike Hartline clean all afternoon.
Then last week, Auburn brought in defensive tackle Nick Fairley, the league leader in sacks who had at least 1.5 tackles for loss in each of the first five games. Fairley had a stop behind the line of scrimmage, but he didn't register a sack.
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Now the UK line faces perhaps its biggest challenge of the season in the South Carolina defensive front. The Gamecocks dropped Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy seven times in a 35-21 win last week and are tied with LSU for the league lead in sacks (19). The Cats, meanwhile, have allowed the fewest sacks in the league (three), and one of those was given up by a running back.
"It's going to be another big test," left guard Stuart Hines said. "Our SEC schedule has prepared us. We've seen a lot of stuff, and we'll be ready for whatever they throw at us, hopefully. That's something we take pride in doing, protecting the quarterback."
Whereas a lot of defensive lines might have one or two main guys to worry about, the South Carolina defensive front spreads the wealth. Five players have two or more sacks, led by end Devin Taylor (3.5) and reserve defensive tackle Melvin Ingram (3.5).
"That makes it hard to sleep at night," UK offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "The strength of their defense is in their front four. They've got veteran players there that have the skill and talent to really be effective. Now they've got the confidence. This will be the biggest challenge that we've had. Not only are those guys good players, but they've got the scheme that puts them in a lot of places to where we're going to have to work hard to be in the right places to block them."
The performance of the offensive line is even more remarkable considering UK had to replace four starters from last year's highly regarded group.
"It's got to be all about everybody working together," center Matt Smith said. "A lot of the stuff we have is gap protection stuff, and that's basically knowing that your buddy's going to have your back if somebody crosses your space so you don't have to reach back for him. A lot of what we do in the running game is about drawing double-teams, and if your buddy isn't there on a double-team you're going to be hung out to dry."
Summers said a team can have five individual standouts on the line, but if everybody is not on the same page, the success rate is extremely low.
"You can have 70 good snaps and give up one sack at both tackle spots and both guard spots, and at the end of the game you gave up four sacks and you played really bad," Summers said. "But you personally played 69 snaps really good. Everybody has to play together. Since I arrived here, the challenge has been to bring that group together as a cohesive unit. Develop the unit, not necessarily develop the player. I've been proud of what they've done so far. We're not where we need to be, but I'm proud of the progress they've made."
The offensive line has been helped by the pocket presence of quarterback Mike Hartline. Hartline looked jittery at times as a young player, but he's developed into a seasoned veteran who can step up in the pocket to avoid pressure. And he's always been good at getting rid of the ball quickly and throwing it away when he needs to.
"Mike is as good as I've been around at staying in the pocket, staying where he needs to be, having confidence in his guys, and then being able to get rid of the ball on time," Summers said. "No matter who it is we're blocking up front, we're not going to be able to keep them out indefinitely. When that happens sooner than it should, Mike's been really good at getting rid of the ball."
Hartline said there's a mutual trust: He's confident in the line's ability to protect him, and the line is confident that he'll get the ball off on time if they get beat.
"You can't expect the line to be perfect," Hartline said. "You can't expect to not have any pressure the entire game. I've just been trying to focus on staying out of negative situations and getting the ball out of my hand. As far as handling the pocket, it just comes with maturity and experience. If you do it over and over again, you get used to those bodies flying around you."
■ Starting tailback Derrick Locke (stinger) and defensive end DeQuin Evans (ankle) both sat out Thursday's practice and are listed as doubtful for the South Carolina game, Phillips said.