The first week of spring practice has come and gone and we are starting to learn just a little bit about Kentucky’s 2019 football team. Eddie Gran confirming that he was offered the Georgia offensive coordinator gig got most of the attention, but it’s not the biggest thing to know after the first week of March football.
New defensive coordinator Brad White has officially taken over for Matt House, but his biggest task right now is to rebuild the Jack and Sam linebacker spots. Josh Allen is off to the NFL with his career 42 tackles for loss and 31.5 sacks. Outside of Boogie Watson, no UK OLB has received major playing time and rebuilding this position is one of the staff’s biggest current jobs.
Not only was Allen lost, the Cats lost Kengera Daniel to a grad transfer immediately after the season. The senior was going to bring a veteran presence to the Jack position and would’ve entered the season as the starter. Then this past week we learned that redshirt sophomore Chris Whittaker has entered the transfer portal. The former three-star recruit out of Hollywood, Florida had yet to play a game for UK.
This past week, Brad White and Boogie Watson have both admitted that that the Sam backer has been cross-training at Jack. The DMV product is entering his redshirt junior year fresh off a season where he produced five sacks in sidekick role to the superstar on the other side. However, his playing experience and some added weight may make him a likely candidate to fill the enormous shoes left behind by Josh Allen.
Watson has put on nine lbs. in the offseason and is up to 242 pounds according to the 2019 spring roster released earlier this week. That is solid size for that position and he could be able to take on the physicality that is needed when playing near the line of scrimmage on a full-time basis. Who replaces Watson on the other side could be the biggest issue.
At his opening day press conference, Mark Stoops announced that junior college transfer Marquez Bembry would be out for the entirety of spring practice. Therefore, that meant true freshman Jared Casey was going to get plenty of run during the next 15 practices.
The linebacker prospect was the highest rated player in UK’s class of 2019 and a huge recruiting win for Vince Marrow in the city of Louisville. Casey has the ability to play inside or outside and his height (6-foot-1) would make it appear that he would be better suited on the inside. However, UK is on record for saying that he will begin his college career on the edge and he’s already receiving glowing reviews from his upperclassmen teammates. There’s a chance he could enter fall camp as the starter at Sam.
However, the numbers are thin outside of Boogie Watson and Jared Casey. Seldom used redshirt sophomore Alex King appears to be the top backup at Jack. UK gets Marquez Bembry back in the fall at Sam in addition to freshmen K.D. McDaniel and J.J. Weaver. Both project at the Jack spot, but Weaver seems better suited to be a full-time hand-in-the dirt defensive end.
It’s clear that the depth of Brad White’s position group is going to get tested. With some very solid players inside with limited snaps available, there could be a scenario at some point where Jamin Davis or Chris Oats could get some run at Sam backer. Or UK could just lean heavily on an experienced defensive line.
Outside of Adrian Middleton and reserve Tymere Dubose, Kentucky returns their entire defensive line from last season and each player has received big game reps. The most talented of the group will be entering his first full season along the defensive front.
Joshua Paschal is back on the practice field full-time following missing most of last season with melanoma and the former top-300 recruit brings a whole lot of talent to that defensive line. In a limited sample size, Paschal has shown very good short area quickness in addition to the size and strength needed to take on SEC offensive tackles in isolation situations. He has a chance to be a dominant run stuffer.
Next to Paschal will be redshirt senior Calvin Taylor Jr. who has emerged into a really quality player for the Wildcats. The afterthought recruit from Georgia has been one of the better development stories of the Mark Stoops era. The 6-foot-9 senior had six tackles for loss last season and was second on the team with 9.5 run stuffs.
He can play inside, but is at his best at end. T.J. Carter will also be used at end and the senior has started a ton of games for Kentucky the past two seasons. UK’s best option may be to use Paschal and Taylor as bookends on the defensive line with Carter as a rotational piece off the bench.
On the interior, Quinton Bohanna returns at nose and the junior from the Memphis area has been very productive when he is healthy. His primary backup this season will be Marquan McCall who looked very promising during his true freshman season. Over at tackle, UK returns senior Phil Hoskins and redshirt junior Kordell Looney. That’s a lot playing time and experience at UK’s disposal on the line of scrimmage.
After his first season at the helm, Mark Stoops decided to switch from a base 4-3 to a base 3-4 defense. It appeared that the idea was that it was going to be easier for UK to find and develop outside linebacker prospects rather than fight tooth and nail for top notch defensive line prospects that the entire world of college football needs. After a few years, you cannot say that it wasn’t a good decision.
It gave time for UK to build a defensive line by development and gaining playing time experience. It allowed UK to mold two outside linebackers (Josh Allen and Bud Dupree) into first round picks. But now the script has flipped a bit. The Wildcats now find themselves thin at outside linebacker and with plenty of options along the defensive line. We hear all the time about coaches wanting to be “multiple” and this year they must prove that is true.
Kentucky’s best 11 cannot be on the field unless the Wildcats are playing Quinton Bohanna, Joshua Paschal, and Calvin Taylor Jr. When you consider that Taylor’s best suited at a defensive end spot it would make sense to get Phil Hoskins or Kordell Looney in the lineup as much as possible. Then you add in the inexperience at the outside linebacker spots. Boogie Watson is a proven piece, but after that there are a lot of questions. Jared Casey and Jordan Wright are both two youngsters with a lot of talent, but they still have a lot to prove. It would be very valuable if you could lean on your experienced defensive line as you bring along your inexperienced edge players.
In today’s football, you’re going to spend most of your time in subpackages. Kentucky is going to need five defensive backs on the field, but at the end of the day the SEC is a line of scrimmage league. To win games you have to establish the run on offense and stop the run on defense. To do that, UK needs to lean on its defensive line. After multiple years of the front being a weakness, in 2019 the defensive line needs to set the tone.