Injuries, inexperience allow newcomer to shine for UK

Billy Joe Murphy isn’t trying to be the next Garry Williams.

But after Williams, UK’s most experienced lineman and the anchor of the offensive line, went down with a knee injury following the Louisville game, it was up to Murphy to try and do his best impression of the senior left tackle.

“I’ll try to fill his shoes the best I can until he gets back,” said Murphy, a redshirt freshman. “Anytime you get to play, you’re in the game playing for the future.”

Even though Murphy is trying his best to make up for the loss of Williams, the injury still stings. Williams has started at left tackle for three seasons, helping solidify UK’s offensive line this year. Murphy, on the other hand, hadn’t played in a single game before starting against Norfolk State.

“It’s always tough to lose your best player,” junior right tackle Justin Jeffries said. “He was our leader as a senior, so losing him was big. Now that we found out Billy Joe can handle himself, it makes us more comfortable.”

If comfortable is the right word.

Guard Christian Johnson’s status has been in limbo since Brooks announced the guard’s injury and academic standing could sideline him all year. Fellow linemen Jorge Gonzalez and Jess Beets are first-year starters as well. That makes UK’s depth at offensive line shaky, before even mentioning injuries.

In addition to the loss of Williams, backup James Alexander has been slow in recovering from a preseason injury. With injuries starting to plague UK’s offensive line, it could hamper UK’s offensive ability.

But with Murphy’s teammates constantly providing tips throughout the week, things went smoothly for the Cats.

“I told him to be patient,” Jeffries said. “He’ll get some pressure, and that he’ll have good and bad plays, but to keep working. Just get that first play over.”

And Murphy did just that. He gave up zero sacks against Norfolk State, even though Jeffries said he knew Murphy had butterflies in his stomach.

“I know he was nervous,” Jeffries said. “I was nervous last year for my first start.”

Even if Murphy was worried, it didn’t show on the field. Jeffries lauded his teammate’s play on Saturday.

“I think he did pretty well for his first start,” Jeffries said. “I could hear him and he was making some pretty good calls.”

Now that Murphy is the clear replacement while Williams is sidelined, Murphy has the backing of thousands, literally. Hailing from tiny Gamaliel, Ky., Murphy said that everyone back home was trying to contact him after the game.

“I practiced with the first string all week,” Murphy said. “When I told them I had a chance to start, my family back home was priceless with their reaction after the game.”

Text messages, phone calls and e-mails all flooded Murphy’s life, not that he cared. He went from favorite son to possible hometown hero.

“I don’t know about hometown hero yet,” Murphy said. “I’m just trying to represent where I come from.”

Despite having the task of protecting Mike Hartline’s blindside and help secure Randall Cobb’s strong side, head coach Rich Brooks raved about Murphy after Saturday’s win over Norfolk State. A few days later, Brooks warned about looking too much into Murphy’s performance.

“He’s a work in progress,” Brooks said. “He just started his first game. One game does not a career make. So he has work to do.”

Murphy knows he’ll face a real test this week against Middle Tennessee State, which uses a totally different defensive scheme than Norfolk State. And while the first game jitters are put of Murphy’s system, it doesn’t mean he can relax before Saturday’s game.

“I’ll be anxious before,” Murphy said. “I’ll be nervous probably when we run out on the field.”