To win in the SEC, it all starts in the trenches. John Schlarman’s offensive line has proven time and time again that they are one of the best in country. Now Anwar Stewart is trying to elevate the defensive line to new heights.
Stewart, a former pass-rusher for the Wildcats who spent more than a decade in the CFL, returned to Kentucky this spring to coach UK’s defensive linemen. A graduate assistant during the Wildcats’ 10-win 2018 season, not much changed during his one-year sabbatical with Appalachian State.
“We didn’t miss a beat,” he told KSR Wednesday. “A lot of the kids that are here are the same kids. Even recruiting-wise, before I left in February of ’19, Josaih (Hayes), (Octavious) Oxendine, Justin (Rogers), all of those guys had been here on Junior Day. They had already been on campus so I was familiar with the recruiting class on the D-Line. Me and Derrick (LeBlanc) worked really close together and it was one of those things where we shared everything, so I already knew the system. I knew what was happening, the guys that were here, the guys that were leaving so it was a very smooth transition.”
Stewart saw growth from the group when he returned for 2020 spring practice, particularly from the room’s leaders, nose guard Quinton Bohanna and defensive end Josh Paschal.
“Q’s gotten stronger. He’s gotten bigger and he’s a very smart kid. He’s a really smart kid. He loves ball,” Stewart said. “Josh was back at outside. We had him back outside at linebacker. Now I get him back and can put him at that field (defensive) end. I’m very excited to have him back. He’s very athletic, a strong, twitchy kid. Especially on the run, it’s great to have him with his lateral movements and stuff and how he gets vertical. He’s just a great kid. He’s a really good leader and I think that it’s really good to have those two guys because they’re roommates. They feed off each other and I think they’re the leaders in my room. They’re the alpha males and they know what I expect.”
It will be up to Bohanna and Paschal to ensure the talented incoming freshmen are not led astray. Stewart inherited a group ranked by Rivals as the third-best defensive line class in America, trailing only Alabama and Clemson.
“Those guys are going to come in and they’re going to push, they’re going to push the guys that are here. That’s what you want. You want competition and with competition you’re going to see who’s going to rise to the top and who’s going to crack. I’m very excited about the recruiting class.”
Stewart believes he has the ideal combination of size and strength with the four signees — Josaih Hayes, Octavious Oxendine, Tre’vonn Rybka and Justin Rogers. The latter is Kentucky’s highest-ranked commitment of the internet era. Rogers will compete with Hayes and Oxendine for immediate playing time at nose and defensive tackle, two positions Stewart sees as interchangeable.
“He’s a big, strong kid. He can push that pocket and has really good lateral movements,” Stewart said of Rogers. “He’s violent in his movements and I tell you what, those are the things that you look for are the kids that love the game and strike, are very physical guys. I think when you have those type of kids, it just makes you better. That’s one of the big things you look for as a defensive line coach.”
Stewart speaks with his players in Zoom meetings twice a week, including the new guys, however, there’s only one freshman he was able to work with on the football field this spring, Oxendine. The former North Hardin star made an exceptional first impression.
“I’m excited. Oxendine is already here and I tell you what, he’s awesome. He’s a great kid, great student, no issues with him. I wish I had ten more of him. He’s doing excellent and it’s great that he got into school, got that early enrollment and it’s been great for him with the transition in the weight room. We did did get five practices in so it’s been great for him.”
You can see Stewart work with Ox in the following mic’d up feature.
We mic'd up Defensive Line Coach @Bigstew9 for one of our first spring practices
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) March 26, 2020
Kentucky was only able to complete one-third of its spring practice, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. During that time Stewart learned he has a hungry group of linemen.
“I learned they want to get better. They want to get better. Effort, toughness, tenacity — these young men really want to be one of the top defensive lines in the SEC and in the country. It’s my job to get them there” Stewart said.
“I’m working my butt off day and night to simplify drills and get them to understand why we do what we do. They need to understand to it’s about being physical. It’s about being tough. It’s about being mentally tough. It’s about effort. It’s about all of those things and violence; being violent with your hands and with your movement, so just getting those guys to understand that and being consistent with it day in and day out. Taking the effort you’re doing now on the field and when you’re off the field doing the same thing, whether you’re training or in the classroom attacking those books. The way you come in here is not the way that you leave. If you leave the same way that you came in here then I didn’t do my job.”
Like almost everyone around the country, Stewart is anxious, ready for this difficult time to pass so he can get back to work with his players. He believes the future is bright in 2020 and that there will be football this fall.
“We have a great team. We have great camaraderie. An excellent coaching staff and so I’m very excited. Everything Coach Stoops has with his vision, everybody’s all in, staff and players. We expect nothing but great things this year. Just being really excited and, shoot, I’m just ready for this thing to blow over so we can get back to work.”
He added, “We’re going to see some football. We going to get it. Everything’s going to work out.”
It’s not really related, but I had to ask Stewart if he’s ever thrown on any of his old highlights in the meeting room. He refrains from it. After all, his time on the field has past, but players did get excited when UK released some of his old tape from the 90s.
“When they saw that, they were like, ‘okay, coach balled. Coach got after them.’ I think I gained a little bit more respect from the guys after that.”
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) March 26, 2020