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Unsung Citrus Bowl Heroes

You know Kentucky’s Citrus Bowl stars.  Lynn Bowden was electric, Josh Allen stalked Trace McSorley and Benny Snell broke records to earn MVP honors, but they didn’t do it by themselves.  A few of the most critical plays were made by guys that go unnoticed.  It’s their turn to receive some of the spotlight.

Ahmad Wagner

The former Iowa basketball player did not record one reception in his first season at Kentucky.  Instead of catching passes, he found other ways to make an impact.  Most recall the pass interference he drew at Missouri that gave UK one final untimed down.  In the Citrus Bowl, he made two more incredible plays as a member of Kentucky’s punt return unit.

On the fourth snap of the game, James Franklin tried to run a fake punt.  Wagner’s nose was right in the middle of the pile, stuffing the run short of the first down marker.  A few series later, Lynn Bowden entered the game as UK’s returner.  After Bowden made a few cuts through traffic, Wagner secured the score with a pancake block.

Calvin Taylor Jr.

The biggest man on the Kentucky’s defensive line had a sneaky excellent season that reached a crescendo in the Citrus Bowl.  The 6’9″ defensive end recorded a season-high four tackles against Penn State.  Three of the tackles were solo and one was for a loss.  Kentucky had nine tackles for loss, three more than the Nittany Lions, who entered the game ranked fourth nationally in the category.

The redshirt junior had a breakout season in 2018.  Taylor finished the season with 26 tackles, the most by a UK defensive lineman.  Taylor had six tackles for loss, ranked fourth on the team, and he recorded a sack, a PBU and a fumble recovery.

Brad White and Derrick LeBlanc

The reason why you probably did not notice Taylor’s breakout season is because of Derrick LeBlanc.  UK’s defensive line coach leveled the playing field on his line.  Players remained fresh in LeBlanc’s rotation and played discipline football, freeing up the linebackers to stuff the stat sheet.

The outside linebackers made even more plays thanks to the addition of Brad White.  The former NFL tactician took Josh Allen’s game to incredible new heights.  His experience benefitted this group and attracted future stars on the edge to sign last December.

LeBlanc and White are the two most under-appreciated coaches on Kentucky’s staff.  One play in the Citrus Bowl perfectly illustrates their impact on Kentucky’s defense.

As Kentucky clung to a 10-7 lead in the second quarter, the UK defense forced a third and six.  Expecting McSorley to drop back to pass, Matt House dialed up a twist with Josh Allen.  T.J. Carter attacked the edge and drew two blockers, leaving Allen in a one-on-one pass rush situation with the center.  All it took was one slight jab to give Allen a free shot at McSorley.

If I were hosting an instructional clinic on how to run a twist, I would use this play as an example.  LeBlanc and White’s fingerprints are all over the outstanding display of fundamentals.

Lonnie Johnson

Of Kentucky’s five senior defensive backs, Lonnie probably gets the least amount of credit for the secondary’s success.  Without him on January 1, Kentucky might not have won the game.  Lonnie’s third quarter interception, the first of his career, set up Benny Snell’s historic game-winning touchdown.

When Lonnie Johnson becomes the highest drafted Kentucky defensive back, remember that you heard it here first.

Davonte Robinson

The upperclassmen in the secondary receive all the attention, yet the one underclassmen receiving significant reps ended his season on a high note.  Primarily covering Penn State’s best receiver, KJ Hamler, from the nickel position, Robinson held his own.  Covering sideline to sideline, he had five tackles, four of which were unassisted.  Next year’s secondary will be built around the Lexington native.

Two other big pieces on next year’s defense did not disappoint: Chris Oats and DeAndre Square.  Oats had three tackles and recovered the fumble that ended the game.  Only Darius West and Kash Daniel had more tackles than Square, a star for many years to come on Kentucky’s defense.

Dean Hood

Like LeBlanc and White, Hood’s contributions to the Kentucky football team often get overlooked.  Against Penn State, Kentucky won the field position battle multiple times, thanks to the Australian punter Hood found in the offseason.  Max Duffy saved his two best punts for last, one from 67 and one from 65, to cap off his season averaging 44.78 yards per punt, the 14th-highest average in America.

Hood also worked some schematic magic.  Given one last opportunity to use Josh Allen, the special teams coach put the future first round pick to work.  Hood installed a new field goal block the week before the Citrus Bowl, using Carter and Taylor to open a hole for Allen to penetrate the offensive line.  Allen had just enough wiggle room to get a hand on the ball.  Instead of entering the locker room at halftime tied, the Cats had a three-point lead, the final margin of victory.

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Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR