Wildcats' O-Line getting in sync

For perhaps the first time in the history of organized football, synchronized diving was a hot topic as Joker Phillips addressed the media after Wednesday's practice.

For perhaps the first time in the history of organized football, synchronized diving was a hot topic as Joker Phillips addressed the media after Wednesday's practice.

And, somehow, it made perfect sense.

The Kentucky coach made comparisons to the recently-completed Summer Olympic event when asked to discuss the importance of having a healthy offensive line for this year's camp in contrast to last year's injury-riddled unit.

"You guys saw the synchronized diving," Phillips said. "… That's what you've got to be up front. I've never seen the synchronized diving until this year, is that something they added? (But) that's the way your offensive line has to be. They have to be in sync, everybody has to be on the same page, and you have to communicate. That's the reason why you have to stay healthy. You can't have one guy miss practice, the next guy misses another.

"We're banged up with some bumps and bruises, but it's nothing like last year."

The origin of UK's offensive struggles in 2011 can be directly traced to a rough fall camp that saw four out of the Wildcats' five expected starters on the O-Line miss significant reps due to injury. The result was a shockingly bad start to the season as UK gained a scant 190 yards and scored only twice in a 14-3 victory over former I-AA program Western Kentucky.

Two weeks later, the Cats were upset at home by Louisville and managed just 290 yards and 17 points in a game that deeply damaged the team's psyche heading into an SEC gauntlet of games against Florida, LSU and South Carolina that left UK mentally and physically beaten. It would be almost November before the line's collective health came around, and by then the season was in dire straits and hopes for a sixth-consecutive bowl game had evaporated.

Senior center Matt Smith, one of the players who missed significant practice time last year, says he didn't realize at the time the impact it would have on the Cats' offense.

"I don't think it really hit us until we got into that first game," Smith said. "We kind of realized, ‘Whoa. We needed the practice. We haven't been in there doing the things that we need to be doing to prepare for this, physically.' I think it kind of hit us and set us back a minute to look back at things and realize how bad it hurt us."

Smith, who is expected to anchor this year's line with the ever-important defensive checks from his position, echoed Phillips' comments on the importance of being in sync.

"It's just important because, with the O-Line, four guys can do the right thing and one guy messes up, you have a terrible play," he said. "We have to work as a unit, as five across, and when you have guys missing time, you just don't have that opportunity to work on your footsteps together in cohesion."

The Cats are getting that work in this summer. For now.

"Fall camp is hard when you're playing in the offensive line and the defensive line," UK offensive line coach Mike Summers said. "There's contact on every play of every practice, and that takes its toll. You're fortunate if you can get through that and physically be where you want to be. What you hope is that there aren't debilitating injuries that take you out of practice. We've been fortunate so far that we've been able to keep that group working hard and progressing the way we want them to."

Unlike some other positions on the team, there's no way to protect linemen from contact in practice while getting the work they need. Quarterbacks, and sometimes other skill players nursing injuries, often wear red non-contact jerseys and have their contact managed effectively.

"We can come out in shorts every day and play touch," Summers quipped in classic O-Line coach fashion, "but we're not going to be ready to play our first game. We have to put our hand in the dirt and come off the ball and smack our defense in the mouth, and they have to smack us in the mouth. That's how we physically hone our skill."

Each day of practice and each rep are treated like precious commodities by the staff as they attempt to prepare the Cats for the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville.

"They wouldn't give you 29 practices to get ready to play if you didn't need ‘em," Summers said. "So if you take those guys out of practice, it impedes your development and your ability for those guys to all play together."

So far, so good.

"I'm really pleased with the way the group has responded, competitively," Summers said. "They've gone out in the dog days of camp and they're really decided to pull together and play hard and lean on each other. I'm starting to see that.

"You guys who have been around me know that their ability to rely on each other and the cohesiveness of the unit means as much to me as their understanding of the skill. I'm starting to see that. As we get into some of these long practices and long drives, they're communicating a lot better. We're only halfway through (camp), so we have a lot more to go before we're game ready, but I'm encouraged with where they are now."

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