Avery Williamson didn't think too much the first time he met Pancho Thomas. They met just briefly when Thomas arrived on campus for a visit last fall, and neither remembered much from their first encounter.
Williamson was the backup middle linebacker. Thomas was just another high school prospect rolling through for a visit. Less than a year later, the two are almost inseparable.
"He's like my older brother now," Thomas said of Williamson.
Williamson took a special interest in Thomas over the summer. When the freshman arrived, Williamson knew his backup would have to be prepared to play. There was a different understanding between the two of them then.
"He knew we played the same position," Thomas said. "He knew we both had to compete, but it wasn't like 'This guy here is trying to take my spot, so I'm not going to show him the ropes.' He brought me in and welcomed me with open arms."
Williamson became Thomas' mentor. When Thomas didn't understand a play or a call being made, he could go to Williamson. When it looked like the freshman wasn't getting in enough extra time to learn his responsibilities, Williamson pushed him into extra film study.
"It's hard. He's young," Williamson said. "You have to make him (study). I tell him to bring his notes everywhere he goes. He can't go to me all the time."
He already has enough on his plate. As the middle linebacker, he's responsible for making the majority of the defensive calls on the field.
He's also the Wildcats' most prolific tackler. Williamson is second in the SEC and tied for twelfth nationally with 41 stops through four games despite never starting a game before this season. He rotated with middle linebacker Ronnie Sneed often in 2011, but still entered the season as a relative unknown.
"He's playing really fast," linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. "He knows the defense better than anybody over there. He does. He's been able to use that to his advantage, playing fast, playing physical and making a lot of plays."
Williamson's goal was to lead the SEC in tackles this year. His 41 tackles trails only Auburn's Daren Bates, who has 47 so far. But Bates is a fourth year starter for the Tigers who finished fourth in the conference last year with 104 tackles.
"A lot of guys get overlooked," Williamson said. "One day, people will recognize the dedication I put in."
Thomas already sees it. Without the help of Williamson, he wouldn't even be on the field. They started as competitors, but Williamson is now Thomas' role model. The production on the field impresses Thomas, but it's something else that sets Williamson apart.
"His dedication. He's always in the film room, in the weight room," Thomas said. "He always brings me along. He tries to get me to practice harder and go look at plays with him. My ability and him helping me with these plays is the only reason I'm playing right now."
Smith sits Wednesday out
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith practiced on Wednesday, but did not throw. He threw in practice on Tuesday and was scheduled to throw on Thursday.
Freshman Jalen Whitlow took reps with the starting offense on Wednesday on passing plays, making throws while Smith watched the scout team defense from behind. Head coach Joker Phillips said Whitlow would likely be the starter on Saturday if Smith can't play.
"He wasn't godawful but he made some throws," Phillips said.
Smith is still expected to play on Saturday. He said on Wednesday he wanted to play against Florida, but the coaches decided to sit him out to avoid what could have been a devastating injury.
"I really wasn't 100 percent," Smith said. "I could have taken one hit and been out for the rest of the season."
He re-aggravated the sprained AC in his right (throwing) shoulder he suffered against Georgia last year, separating it. The coaches originally planned to only have him throw on Wednesday of this week, but decided he could throw on Tuesday and Thursday instead.