It’s easy to argue that the University of Kentucky has never had more talent in the trenches. On the offensive line four returning starters could become NFL Draft picks. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, the Wildcats are three deep on the defensive line, with an incoming freshman class that can only be compared to their counterparts at Alabama and Clemson.
Earlier this week second-year defensive coordinator Brad White spoke at length about his expectations for this year’s defensive line and shared early impressions from practice. It’s hard not to get excited about what’s on the field after going four downs with Brad White.
First Down: Freshmen Pass the Eye Test
Coach Speak: “It’s a talented group. When the four of them all walk out, you’re like, WOW. That doesn’t look like a true freshman class. They have really good girth to them, good size. Big people are still big in the fourth quarter and that’s sort of our mantra. But like anything, when you walk in and you’re a true freshman, there’s a learning curve. You’re not just the biggest one anymore. There’s a lot of big bodies out there. We’re lucky enough to go against one of the best O-lines in the country every single day, so it makes us better up front. The competition is great.
“There’s only so much right now you can see from those guys since we don’t have pads on yet. Movement, skill-wise, they’ve shown good movement but down there it’s all about being physical and being able to sustain down after down. We’ll start to see that once we put the shoulder pads on and see who looks to pop, who can anchor when double teams come, who can recognize blocks; block recognition is huge in this league. The ones that can pick it up quicker are the ones that can get on the field quickest.”
Analysis: You can see from practice film that the freshmen — Justin Rogers, Octavious Oxendine, Josaih Hayes and Tre’vonn Rybka — pack a punch. They move well for their size. However, it’s different when All-SEC offensive linemen punch pack in pads. How they respond in full contact will determine the early pecking order.
— Nick Roush (@RoushKSR) August 21, 2020
Second Down: Paschal is Home
Coach Speak: “He was great in the spring. Through the first two practices here he’s looked really good. He’s in great shape right now, arguably the best shape I’ve ever seen him. It’s been a smooth transition and really a big transition for us in terms of a big piece of what we want to be, to have that kind of body out there with his athleticism and his understanding of more than just the D-line. He understands the entire front through his time at outside linebacker. It’s great to have a knowledgeable player there as well.”
Analysis: Malignant melanoma prevented Paschal from making the move to defensive line earlier. A versatile player that’s spent most of his career as a Jack linebacker, he provided power to the position, but ultimately his speed is more valuable with his hand in the dirt. Now playing the position that was made for him, expect Paschal’s best season yet as a Wildcat.
Third Down: Depth is a Nice Problem
Coach Speak: “It’s nice to have depth. It’s a nice problem to have. Trust me, there’s enough reps to go around and we’re going to find — if you’re going to be able to affect the game, you’re going to find a way to get on the field. We’re going to find a way to put you on the field to affect the game. There’s enough heavy lifting to go around, so if you prove to us that you should be on the field and you need to be on the field, there’s enough practice reps to make that impression to us, that’s the nice thing, Coach Stoops gives us plenty of reps.”
White continued, “It’s going to create competition. It’s going to bring out the best in everybody. The cream is going to rise to the top and if it doesn’t, then we know who we’re playing with. If it’s two guys or three guys and they’re battling and it’s tight every single day, well then we’re going to find a way to get all three of those guys on the field. If one guy separates himself from the rest, then that one guy, he’s definitely going to take more snaps than the others. What it’s going to do is it’s going to elevate our play.”
Analysis: In a 10-game SEC schedule, few have enough big guns to physically wear down opponents. Kentucky will have that luxury because they can keep bodies fresh by rotating them in regularly. The players atop the depth chart will likely receive the most snaps, but the term “starter” has never mattered less on Kentucky’s defensive line.
Fourth Down: Challenging Quinton Bohanna
Coach Speak: “Quinton and I have had quite a few talks because I have very lofty expectations for what he can be for us. I will not shy away from that and he doesn’t want me to shy away from the fact that we need more out of him and I expect more. It’s not about being a one-play or a two-play a game that looks good in a highlight film. It has to be consistent down in and down out.
“He wasn’t just a highlight guy. He does a lot of dirty work that no one sees. He commands a lot of double teams. He keeps guys free, but what I expect of him is to do that, and then more. It’s his job plus, is what we talk about. What he can do is he can hold point and when a guy comes off, I expect him to tear off. I really expect to get more out of him in the pass rush game this year. He doesn’t need to be thought of as just a run guy. He’s got enough twitch and short-area burst and strength that he can affect the pass game, and we need him to because there’s gonna be times where he gets the one-on-one (matchup). When he gets the one-on-one, there should be nobody that can block him. That’s my expectation for him. That’s what I expect him to do. Marquan (McCall), same way. There’s nobody that should be able to one-on-one block Marquan. If they do, I expect those guys to make a play.”
Analysis: For outsiders, White’s words for Bohanna may sound harsh. In reality, this is White’s way of lighting a fire under the ass of one of his most talented players. Last year White made it a point early in the preseason to call out Jordan Wright, albeit for different reasons. Wright responded accordingly and proved that he can be an impact pass rusher. If Bohanna replicates those results or exceed those expectations, he’ll be one of the best interior defensive lineman in the SEC and a day two NFL Draft pick.