October 26, 2011

Avery Williamson finds his comfort zone

Avery Williamson used to have nightmares once he got out of bed.

In August 2010, Williamson would lie awake in bed at night and wonder if coming to Kentucky had been the right decision. He was demoralized and confused in fall camp, struggling to make the adjustment to college.

"To be honest, last year, I felt like I wasn't meant to be here," he said. "I felt like I wasn't good enough."

He called his parents at night and asked if he could come home. The shock of moving away from home, adding college classes, going through two-a-days, and being coached harder than ever before was too much for him.

"I didn't know what my place was on this team," Williamson said.

It's the same adjustment that most freshmen go through. But Williamson really struggled. He didn't seem like himself, wasn't having fun, and wasn't sure how to handle his new role. He had heard his first camp would be rough, but he was still unprepared.

"You come out of high school as a superstar, being able to make plays," he said. "You come to college and the coaches try to correct everything you do … My ego was really hurt."

Fortunately, he found a mentor. Ronnie Sneed, who moved into the starting middle linebacker spot that fall, was Williamson's roommate in fall camp. Sneed, then a fourth-year junior, took the true freshman under his wing. Williamson was shy and quiet at the time, but thanks in part to Sneed, he stuck around.

It didn't take long for him to find out he was needed. He remembers realizing it was time for him to step up after watching the Wildcats lose back-to-back road games to open their Southeastern Conference schedule that year. Against Ole Miss, he'd broken free and made a big special teams play that showed him he could hang with SEC competition.

"The thing you could tell about Avery was that he really wanted to learn," Sneed said. "That's what set him apart from the other freshmen."

He took another step forward in the spring. When new defensive coordinator Rick Minter installed his defense, he saw the way Kentucky's veteran linebackers, including Sneed went about learning their new positions. He studied with them, learning his role while preparing to take over for Sneed one day.

By the time a year had passed from his first fall camp, he was a completely different player. He had earned the No. 2 spot at middle linebacker behind Sneed, beating out more experienced players, like Qua Huzzie. All the time spent learning Minter's defense was paying off.

Today, coaches rave about Williamson's intangibles. Minter called him a player of "high integrity" while praising his work ethic. Steve Brown, defensive coordinator in 2010, said Williamson always has a smile on his face. While he wasn't always the gregarious teammate that he is now, linebackers coach Chuck Smith said it's good that he's grown into that role.

"It comes with the position that he's playing, mike linebacker," Smith said. "He does most of the talking, the checks, the adjustments. You have to be vocal. You can't be afraid to be a guy who's going to speak up."

Sneed still considers Williamson, who is 6-1, 229 pounds, to be a little brother to him. He's been earning some snaps at middle linebacker this season, and finished Saturday's game against Jacksonville State with a career-high seven tackles. Smith said he'll continue to be rotated in at linebacker more as the season progresses.

Williamson is by nature physical - it's a prerequisite for linebackers - but he takes it to a different level.

"He wants to run into everything," Sneed said. "He wants to knock the hell out of everything."

Coaches also call him one of the hardest workers on the team. Williamson still spends extra time with Smith nearly every evening as he tries to improve. His confidence has continued to rise as his production goes up this season. He's hardly the same player he was when he first arrived as a freshman.

"After all the hard work that you put in, you want to see some type of reward," Williamson said." I feel like I'm starting to get that.

"It's not going to come automatically, but it's going to keep getting better over time."

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