When a team loses the leading tackler in the defense-happy Southeastern Conference, the following season's thoughts immediately turn to who's going to fill those shoes.
That's the situation Kentucky faces entering the 2012 season after saying goodbye to stellar weakside linebacker Danny Trevathan and wishing him well on his way to the NFL's Denver Broncos.
After the second of two practice sessions Monday, however, UK head coach Joker Phillips indicated that the Wildcats may be in the process of finding a worthy successor.
"I like the way Avery Williamson is taking ownership of the defense," Phillips said when asked which players stood out in Saturday's scrimmage at Commonwealth Stadium. "That showed up in the off-season. That's not just showing up now. It showed up in the off-season, this summer, the way he carried (himself and) went about his business. We're starting to see it carry over the football field also."
The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Williamson played in all 12 games last season. Although the Milan, Tenn., native did not draw any starting assignments, he finished fifth on the UK defense with 49 total tackles and at times showed glimpses of star potential. He had an interception against Florida, forced a fumble against South Carolina and closed his sophomore season with five tackles and a tackle for loss to help the Cats shut down Tennessee in a 10-7 victory that ended UK's long drought against the Volunteers.
Defensive coordinator Rick Minter says Williamson has all the traits a coach looks for in a leader in the middle of the unit.
"He's a great young man, number one. Everything starts there with Avery – his character, his work ethic, his integrity," Minter said. "He's a leader. People follow him. He doesn't have a demeaning personality. He's got that stern leadership quality about him that guys follow, and his level of play has begun to mirror that level of leadership.
"It's one thing if you can talk a good game and be smart, but you don't make any plays. But he's our best inside linebacker… We make no bones about it, he's our leader on defense, particularly with the substance of what we do. Now, there's other guys – Tay Neloms and Mikie Benton and Uke (Collins Ukwu) and Taylor Wyndham who are seniors and will also be called on to lead – but Avery is our on-the-field general. When he talks, people listen."
According to Minter, the extra work that Williamson puts in away from the practice field has helped make him a very productive player early in his career.
Remember, Williamson did not come to Kentucky as highly-regarded as some of his teammates. He was a 215-pound, two-star prospect out of Milan High School, but the staff saw diamond-in-the-rough qualities from a player who helped lead his team to a 28-2 record and back to back state championship game appearances as a junior and senior.
Countless hours in the weight room and film room have helped bulk up both his frame and his mind.
"He has studied and learned and made himself a really good, solid linebacker in our system," Minter said.
UK staff: Williamson 'taking ownership' of D
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