John Clay

Cats' offensive line faces heavy pressure

Expectations bring a price.

Part is performance.

Part is pressure.

Ask Kentucky's offensive line. This summer, when prognosticators were proclaiming it the strength of the Wildcats offense, the line would have greeted your query with a grin. Last week, however, after an angry earful from its disappointed head coach, the line would have greeted the question with a growl.

"It's a lot of pressure on us," senior left tackle Garry Williams said Tuesday. "We know that."

So does most everyone else. For Kentucky to win at Louisville on Sunday, the offensive line must do multiple jobs. One, it must pave the way for a strong stable of solid Blue backs. Two, it must afford time for Mike Hartline, UK's inexperienced starting quarterback, to make good decisions.

"Hartline, being his first start ever, we know they're going to throw different blitzes at us," said Williams at Rich Brooks' weekly press luncheon. "It's our responsibility, as far as this game, to get up and be ready for everything."

"We're taking it every day that the game is kind of going to ride on us," said Zipp Duncan, junior left guard.

The pressure to perform.

"I definitely think there's a lot of pressure on the O-line," said Duncan. "But we've talked about that, even since the spring. We knew we had a lot of experience coming back. We tried to work every day because we knew we were going to be the backbone."

After all, the weight rested on strong and experienced backbones. Williams, second-team All-Southeastern Conference, has 25 career starts. Since being moved inside from tight end, Duncan has started 10 games. Right tackle Justin Jeffries owns 13 starts.

Two Saturdays ago, however, the back nearly broke. Missed assignments and poor technique led to an upset head coach. Brooks had spent a summer bragging about his men in the trenches only to see them under-perform in the camp's first scrimmage. The head man shucked his civility. He let them know it. He let the media know it. He didn't care who knew it.

Psych job? Maybe. A motivational ploy? If so, it worked.

"I don't think we came out prepared to scrimmage," said Williams on Tuesday. "Second scrimmage, coach told us, 'We can't have that no more.' So we came out and hit them in the mouth."

"We kind of took it upon ourselves after that first scrimmage," Duncan said. "We knew we had to get better, play together, work together. I think the guys just took it as a challenge everyday to get better. I think we went out and really showed Saturday that we've improved."

Returns have helped. James Alexander, the team's No. 3 tackle, a junior, is back practicing. Stuart Hines, redshirt freshman backup guard, is back practicing. Hines could end up challenging senior Jess Beets and sophomore Brad Durham for the starting spot at right guard.

"The health of the line is better than it was a couple of weeks ago when I was pretty upset with them," said Brooks.

"That was a real tough week," said Duncan. "The focus was really on us. But, like I said, we came out, we were a focused unit, we knew we had to get better, we had to improve."

The focus will find them again Sunday for an added reason. Williams calls Louisville home.

"Senior year, not beating Louisville," said the tackle, shaking his head, "that would be tough."

Now there's pressure.