It’s now time to jump to the defensive side of the football after making our way through every unit in the offense. If you haven’t done so yet, make sure you hit the links to go back and see how Kentucky is sitting at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and offensive line entering 2018.
Ever since the departure of Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith following the 2014 season, UK’s most criticized group has been in the trenches. In the last three seasons, UK has struggled to find answers along the line as they have shuffled in junior college prospects while trying to redshirt and develop the high school recruits they’ve brought in. After three long years, it appears that this group is ready to become a strength of the defense rather than a weakness.
When you look around the country at the best defensive lines in college football you’ll see a lot of size, speed, and playmaking ability. But what separates the good from the great units is depth. The best groups in college football are able to go two-deep at each position and not skip a beat. Kentucky may just be at a point where they can feel really positive about their rotation.
At nose, sophomore Quinton Bohanna has a bright future while he’ll be spotted by redshirt senior Tymere Dubose, fresh off an outstanding performance in the bowl game. At tackle, redshirt senior Adrian Middleton and junior Phil Hoskins are in a heated camp battle to find out who starts. Middleton has collected 7.5 tackles for loss in his career while Hoskins is a former junior college prospect who picked UK over Arkansas. At end, Kentucky suffered a major blow losing Joshua Paschal, but starter T.J. Carter is back for his junior season after recording three sacks last fall. He’ll be spelled by redshirt junior Calvin Taylor, Jr., who was second on the defensive line in tackles last year. We didn’t even mention redshirt sophomore Kordell Looney who will factor in at tackle, UK’s highest-rated recruit, Marquan McCall, who will play nose, and true freshman Davoan Hawkins, who spurned hometown Miami for the blue and white.
Kentucky now has the bodies to do some damage. The production must come next. Last year UK was 13th in the SEC in tackles for loss with 33. The defensive line only provided six of those and only 4.5 are returning in 2018. It’s easy to see why UK’s run defense fell apart in the second half of the season. The front line struggled to penetrate the line of scrimmage and put way too much pressure on the rest of the defense. Even if you toss in UK’s Jack linebacker position in the equation, the front still only produced nine tackles for loss. That is just unacceptable.
With a talent like Josh Allen coming off the edge, an exceptional blitzer in Mike Edwards at slot corner and the potential of Boogie Watson, UK should be just fine in the pass rush department. Up front, T.J. Carter even flashed potential in this area, but where UK must improve is in the run department. To make a jump, UK must start beating blocks and causing havoc at the point of attack.
Defensive Line Room
Derrick LeBlanc enters his second season in Lexington after coming over from North Texas. He’ll benefit from numbers that we haven’t seen in quite some time. In 2018, Kentucky will field 12 scholarship players to fill three “hand in the dirt” spots on the line, two which are seniors. There is currently a nice roster balance with six underclassmen and six upperclassmen.
Losing Joshua Paschal was a big blow to the group, but expectations still remain high. Most people around the program believe Quinton Bohanna is a future star and expectations are high for Phil Hoskins after he got his feet wet in 2017. Kentucky has a pair of intriguing freshmen — Marquan McCall and Davoan Hawkins — that are as physically impressive as any prospect this program has brought in since Za’Darius Smith.
It’s put up or shut up time for the Kentucky defense. It’s no secret that the Wildcats have struggled to stop people under Mark Stoops. Each year the Cats have given up at least 27 points per outing, including three seasons where that number creeped over 30. With linebacker and secondary spots loaded with experience and NFL talent, now is the time for UK to cash in.
Entering the fall there is a lot riding on the defensive line’s shoulders as they’ve been a weakness of the ballclub for far too long. When you look at any run defense metric, UK is down near the bottom of the pile. Per S&P+, UK ranked 90th or worst in six of the seven metrics that grade run defense. That must change.
Losing Joshua Paschal is a major blow to the group as he had the potential to be a real difference maker. Now UK will be heavily reliant on upperclassmen and a sophomore nose who really impressed last season. There are a few freshmen who could factor in, but as a group this unit must step up. If the defensive line does not show development, it could be time to think about some legitimate schematic changes.