By LARRY VAUGHT
He broke his left ankle in a preseason game last year against Pittsburgh and missed the entire season, but the Carolina Panthers still signed offensive tackle Garry Williams to a two-year contract last November. Williams, who was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Kentucky in 2009, played in seven games his first season — primarily on special teams — but played in all 16 games in 2010. He started the final 11 games at right tackle after Geoff Schwartz moved to right guard and helped the Panthers rush for 100 or more yards in eight of the last nine games with a season-high 212 yards versus Atlanta.
Williams, a Louisville native, played in 45 games at UK and started 39. He was a second-team all-Southeastern Conference pick in 2008 and allowed only one sack in 428 pass plays that season. He was also a second-team all-SEC pick in 2007 when UK set a school single-season record for most points scored with 475.
He came back to Lexington last week to help at the C.H.A.M.P. Camp put on by former UK player Champ Kelly, now the assistant director of pro personnel for the Denver Broncos. Williams said his ankle is healed and he’ll be fine when the Panthers open play and hopes to be in the starting lineup.
Question: Do you ever think back to how far your career as come from the time you got to UK as a player even a little unsure about your own future to being on a NFL roster?
Williams: “I am proud of myself. I set a goal and still going for it. I am not there yet and won’t be until I retire. I set goals and just keep working hard daily. Coming off my ankle injury, I made sure my ankle would be 100 percent when we started OTAs (organized team activities) and that’s what I did.”
Question: When did it click in for you that not only playing in the NFL was possible, but that you could do well at that level?
Williams: “When I got there, I knew I was a hard worker and I knew the NFL looked for guys that worked hard. I was going to give them everything I had and I just knew they would look at me and I continue to show them that I am a hard worker and that I am here for the team and would do anything for the team.”
Question: Is there a particular special memory you have of your years at Kentucky?
Williams: “That would be beating LSU (in 2007 when LSU won the national championship). That was the most special thing, but it was special just being with the guys. I got some great friendships attending Kentucky and I continue to talk to some of them. There was just a special bond a lot of us developed at Kentucky.”
Question: Was the success your team had at Kentucky due to talent, coaching or players bringing out that talent in each other?
Williams: “We brought it out in each other and worked together. That is what (UK head coach) Joker (Phillips) is working on now. He is a new head coach and is still doing a great job. He is telling guys what we did when we were there and he is breaking it down to see what he has to do with these guys now and instilling in them what it takes to win. That’s what he has to do. The program is at a turning point right now with new guys and he just has to instill certain things in them and they have to learn and listen to what he has to say because he is a good coach.”
Question: How much did the quality and quantity of in-state talent (Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton, Jacob Tamme, Corey Peters, etc.) lead to UK’s success during your time at Kentucky?
Williams: “We did have a lot of in-state talent. With me being out in Carolina, I really have not kept up as much with the in-state talent now at UK, but when we were playing we had a lot of in-state talent. I played with some great guys. I just hope we can continue that at Kentucky.”
Question: Is it any surprise to you that Tamme has done as well in the NFL as he has and just recently signed a lucrative free agent contract with Denver?
Williams: “It doesn’t surprise me at all. That guy, what he did in college was what he did in high school. For him to do it in the NFL, that doesn’t surprise me at all and shouldn’t surprise anybody. Same way with Corey Peters. All the guys doing what they are doing now is not a big surprise. They worked hard and they kept fighting. That’s why they are having the success they are now.”
Question: Once you get to the NFL, do you stay friends with all your former teammates or do new competitive rivalries prevent that?
Williams: “No, nothing changes. We still talk. When we play each other, we make jokes and things like that. But nothing has really changed.”
Question: What do you like to do now when you get a chance to make it back to Kentucky?
Williams: “Rest. I don’t do much. I go visit people and stuff like that, but I don’t do a lot of stuff.”
Question: What’s going on with that full beard now that you never had at Kentucky?
Williams: “I have had this a while. I cut it about a year ago and then started growing it again. I don’t think I will cut it again.”
Question: How good are things with you right now with Carolina since you signed that new contract back in November?
Williams: “Everything is going well. Guys on our team have their head on straight and are working hard. We are looking forward to having a big season. Last year we made big strides, but we want that Super Bowl ring. It’s a big step up but we have the talent and we have the coaches and the mental mindset to do it.”
Question: How good is quarterback Cam Newton?
Williams: “He is an excellent guy. Not taking away any other quarterback, but he is a special guy. I saw him play in college (at Auburn). He tore it up. He has lived up to his expectations and we just hope he keeps rising.”
Question: Do you miss Rich Brooks, your head coach at Kentucky?
Williams: “I do miss coach Brooks. He was a great coach and still is. Even though he is retired, he is still a great guy. You cannot forget coach Brooks ever.”