The hours and days after Kentucky's season-opening loss to Louisville seemed to inch by for Avery Williamson. Kentucky's middle linebacker had played well enough from a statistical standpoint but couldn't shake the feeling he had let his teammates down in his first career start.
UK middle linebacker Avery Williamson has 128 total tackles this season despite being a first-year starter
Williamson returned to practice the following week with a renewed purpose. He took it upon himself in interviews to put the blame for the Wildcats' suspect defensive performance on himself, repeatedly saying the alignment issues were his fault. It was in those moments he not only earned the respect of his teammates but the coaches as well.
“When you go into the Louisville game you have to remember he was only a part-time starter last year and that was his first time shouldering the load that Ronnie Sneed shouldered last year,” UK linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. “I think all the responsibility of that kind of caught him off guard. I don't think he realized how important and significant it was. That's where he approved. He didn't let that happen to him again. He's stood out front and been the leader since then.”
The 6-foot-1, 254-pound junior's play since that time has been nothing short of remarkable most weeks, at worst steady in the others. He entered the Cats' season finale with 128 total tackles, ranking him atop the Southeastern Conference in that category. His 11.6 tackles per game ranked him third nationally and his four consecutive games of at least 13 tackles made him the first Kentucky player since Randy Holleran in 1990 to accomplish that feat.
Williamson, a quiet and unassuming type off the field, said before the season he felt primed for a quality 2012 effort but admitted even he's been blown away by what he's been able to accomplish in his first season as a starter.
“I would have never thought it,” Williamson said. “I was just really worried about not messing up and not embarrassing myself out there on national TV. I worked hard in learning the game plan, watching film and it has paid off. I just have a lot to build off of for next year, but I would have never envisioned this. My goal was to lead the SEC in tackles and hopefully be up for All-SEC, but I would have never thought it was going to happen.
“It's a good feeling to know that I have improved from the first game. It's just a feeling and sense of accomplishment. The season hasn't really gone the way we would have liked for it to go but to know that you're getting yourself better to help your team and preparing yourself better for next year is a good feeling.”
While Williamson's numbers have been impressive in their own right it has been the Tennessee native's walk off the field that has earned him such high esteem in the Kentucky locker room.
“He fits in the same mold in terms of work ethic, attitude, dedication, commitment to your Wesley Woodyard, Braxton Kelley, Sam Maxwell, Danny Trevathan, all the guys who have played here and played well,” Smith said. “He fits in the same category because he works so hard at it. He studies the game so hard, he takes what he learns and applies it in practice. You can't be nothing but proud of him because he's worked so hard for what he gets.
“He's a natural leader. He has those natural leadership skills: great personality, respectful, all the qualities it takes to be a great leader. Another key quality you have to have is his work ethic. He leads by example as well as by mouth. If you do that guys listen to you. It's essential. You have to have a guy like that.”
“If I had a daughter she could marry Avery,” UK defensive coordinator Rick Minter said. “That's just the way I feel about the kid personally.”
Williamson really came into his own over the second half of the season. After recording just four tackles in an embarrassing 49-7 weather-shortened loss at Arkansas where the Cats gave up 533 yards on just 61 plays Williamson became a tackling machine. Before the season finale against Tennessee the linebacker had totaled 60 tackles in his previous four games.
“There is a guy that has worked his tail off to be pretty darn good and effective,” Minter said. “There is always two stories to why a guy has a lot of numbers, it's not always good that he plays a lot of plays, plays all the time, never comes out, but thee credit is when he's out there he's making plays. You could be out there for a lot of minutes and not get any tackles. He's made a lot of plays. He's been presented with the opportunity to make a lot of tackles and by golly he's made them, he has not missed many.”
Where Kentucky's defense goes next season will undoubtedly have a lot to do with how Williamson attacks whatever the new coaching staff throws at them. If past performance is any indication he'll run right through that wall as well.
“He kept us together,” UK defensive tackle Tristian Johnson said. “He kept that defense together and working together. When it got hard Avery kept on striving and was the same old Avery. He continued to work and work and work.”