After finishing up the entire offense (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive line), it’s now time to head to the other side of the football. Fresh off having one of the best defenses in program history last fall, Mark Stoops had a lot of changes to make in 2019. The head coach with a defensive background had to find a new coordinator, lost college football’s best defensive player, and every starter in the secondary. There were a lot of holes for Stoops to fill this past offseason, but defensive line was not one of them.
Since coming over from North Texas, Derrick LeBlanc has done a great job coaching this group and entering his third season on the staff he’ll have the best defensive line Kentucky has fielded since 2008. The Wildcats have the size, experience, depth, and talent to really make a difference this year in the trenches. This group has a chance to become one of the top half defensive line groups in the SEC.
Back in 2008, Kentucky had some units on the defensive line. It started with future third round pick Corey Peters at defensive tackle, but there were plenty of solid players surrounding him. On the outside, Jeremy Jarmon and Ventrell Jenkins combined to record 13 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and three forced fumbles. Next to Peters, Ricky Lumpkin came off the bench while senior Myron Pryor gave us one of the most memorable plays in program history.
Thanks primarily to that defensive line, the Wildcats finished 35th in defensive S&P+ and this was the highest finish in recent memory until last year’s defense finished 15th. To be good on that side of the ball you must have players on the line.
When Mark Stoops took over in Lexington, Kentucky had two NFL draft picks in their first starting defensive line. The problem was the depth and overall team talent was not there. After dipping into the junior college market nearly every recruiting cycle, Kentucky found itself with a bit of a revolving door within the defensive line room. Things started to change when Derrick LeBlanc was hired before the 2017 season.
After spending one year at North Texas, LeBlanc took over the group and was finally able to payoff some of the recruiting work done by some of the staff. In that time, Kentucky has turned a ton of three-star recruits into quality SEC defensive linemen. Now entering 2019, UK has a legit two-deep among the defensive line and this group will give the Wildcats a chance to have another strong defense.
Defensive Line Room
Much like we did with the offensive line, you have to start with the big guy in the middle of UK’s 3-4 attack. Quinton Bohanna was a low three-star recruit in the class of 2017 out of the Memphis area despite recording 91 tackles and 19 sacks during his senior season. As a true freshman two seasons ago, he quickly found his way into the rotation.
The 6-foot-4 and 361-pound nose guard started the last five games of his rookie season and gave UK some quality play on the interior. Expectations were high for Bohanna in his sophomore season, but the guy they call Big Bo was hampered by an ankle injury for most of the season. However, he played really well down the stretch recording 4.5 run stuffs (run stops at or behind the line of scrimmage). Bohanna has the talent to be an All-SEC type player and UK needs him to play at a high level to be their best.
Next to Bohanna on the inside will be redshirt senior Calvin Taylor, Jr. and the 6-foot-9 defensive lineman may have a better development story than Josh Allen. The Augusta, Georgia native was a late addition to the class of 2015 and picked Kentucky over Charlotte and Temple. Taylor was unranked out of high school and would spend two-plus years on the roster without cracking the rotation. In 2017, Taylor became a nice piece off the bench and led all defensive linemen in tackles. In 2018, he became a big time player.
Taylor started the final nine games of the season on his way to recording 26 tackles and 9.5 run stuffs. The tall defensive end was a force in short yardage defense and should be ready for a big season. After playing end most of last season, it’s likely that the big guy makes the shift back to tackle to get another senior on the field.
T.J. Carter was a low three-star recruit who was a late addition to the class of 2016. The Atlanta area native has played in 37 games with 16 starts, but has yet to emerge as a playmaker. However, all of the camp buzz tells us that is about to change.
Everyone you talk to has been showering the senior defensive end with praise with many claiming he is the star of fall camp. At the open practice, Carter stood out with great takeoff and a body that has gone through a clear change in the strength and conditioning program. After the first scrimmage, Drake Jackson called him the toughest guy block so far and many are expecting a breakout season. Look no further than the coaching staff who decided to move Joshua Paschal out to Jack linebacker for some evidence.
Off the bench, Phil Hoskins enters his senior season and the junior college transfer is looking for a big year. Last year, Hoskins recorded three sacks and you could consider him the fourth starter of the group. Redshirt junior Kordell Looney has played in 24 games in two seasons and will be a quality reserve. Marquan McCall enters his sophomore season and the former top-200 recruit has high expectations for this season at nose guard. This a two-deep that Kentucky should feel very confident in.
After that, it’s a lot of wait and see. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald enters his redshirt sophomore season and is on a development plan similar to Calvin Taylor, Jr. Davoan Hawkins and Qua Mahone are both off redshirt seasons looking to crack the rotation. Cavon Butler and Isaiah Gibson are the two newcomers in the group who both have a bright future on the interior. If Kentucky can get one or two of these players to become apart of the rotation they should be in good shape.
It has taken a long time, but Mark Stoops finally has defensive line with SEC size, talent, and depth. After becoming a productive part of the defense in 2019, this group is set to develop into difference makers this fall. For Kentucky to be at their best, they are going to need high level trench play and Derrick LeBlanc has a group that can provide that.
In the two-deep, Kentucky has five upperclassmen with four of them in at least their fourth year in the program. Everyone in that defensive line rotation has taken their lumps earlier in their career, but has shown signs of next level ability in a small sample size. Now it’s time for this group to help carry the defense.
After last week’s scrimmage, Mark Stoops said “the strength of our team wasn’t the strength” and that seemed to be a direct quote about the defensive line. UK has high expectations for this group and they must play well for the Wildcats to be good on defense.