The 2020 college football season is up and running and it figures to be a crazy one. It’s officially game week in the SEC and that should get you excited. Kentucky enters this season with one of the best rosters in program history and they’ll be looking to cash in with a strong season as they return a boatload of production. Our preview series rolls on as we move to the defensive side of the football. It has taken awhile, but the Wildcats have all the ingredients to be among one of the better defensive lines in the sport.
Leader in the Room
Quinton Bohanna came to Kentucky in the class of 2017 as a low three-star prospect out of the Memphis, but it did not take long for the man with 91 tackles and 19 sacks during his senior year of high school ball to make an impact. After a few games, Bohanna started at nose to close out his true freshman season and has been a consistent force in the middle of some really good UK defenses.
Bohanna has started 24 games in his career collecting 49 tackles and four tackles for loss, but it is clear that the staff is wanting more from a player who many believe is a legit NFL Draft prospect. Defensive coordinator Brad White wants Bohanna to pace UK’s defense this fall.
“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.”
Kentucky has all the requirements to be a very effective defensive line unit, but they need their best players to lead the way. For UK’s defense to reach their ceiling, they will need some high-level play from the senior at nose.
#4 Josh Paschal — The former blue-chip recruit and cancer survivor is now in his fourth season on campus and is turning into a leader in the locker room. This year Paschal will take his 34 tackles, 6 non-sack tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks down to the defensive line room after playing Jack. Expectations are high for the twitchy 278-pounder who could compete for All-SEC honors.
#50 Marquan McCall — The highest rated recruit in the class of 2018 has waited his time behind Quinton Bohanna and he’ll have to wait one more season before he becomes a full-time starter. An absolute unit (379 pounds), the junior can bench press centers on the football field and has been very active in 21 career games (5.5 tackles for loss). He must improve his playing shape, but he can cause havoc when he’s on the field.
#59 Kordell Looney — The redshirt senior out of Ohio has played a lot of football for Kentucky logging snaps in 37 games the last three seasons. Looney flashed at some moments and figures to be a quality rotation piece for UK’s defensive line in his final lap as a Wildcat.
#92 Phil Hoskins — The sixth year senior received his medical redshirt last season and the former junior college transfer is now in his fourth season in Lexington. Hoskins will take over for departing seniors T.J. Carter and Calvin Taylor Jr. and has all the tools to be an effective interior pass rusher. In a reserve role, Hoskins had three sacks in 2018 and figures to be a big help this season.
#93 Qua Mahone — Mahone came to Kentucky from South Georgia needing some development and he showed some signs last season with two tackles and a sack in just four games. At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds he has plenty of size and will be another option to utilize for the coaching staff.
#94 Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald — A surprise addition to the class of 2017, Abadi-Fitzgerald surprised a lot of people when he became a consistent rotation player on last year’s defensive line playing in all 13 games. He has battled some injuries in the offseason, but the redshirt junior should remain a guy that can give the coaching staff solid snaps this season.
#96 Isaiah Gibson — Gibson was a very solid recruiting win in the class of 2019 as Kentucky beat out Wisconsin for the Springfield, Ohio native. Gibson had some very good high school tape and is candidate to play one of the jumbo defensive end spots in UK’s three-down front. He will be a contributor sooner rather than later.
Newcomers — #50 Justin Rogers got a ton of attention as the program’s highest ranked recruit since Micah Johnson and the top-60 recruit has some work to do to crack a deep defensive line rotation.
Both #8 Octavious Oxendine and #99 Josaih Hayes are working at nose while #90 Tre’vonn Rybka is trying out the jumbo defensive end spot. One of the best defensive line recruiting hauls in 2020 passes the look test, but they are joining a deep position group.
Before going forward to 2020, we must take a look at what the Cats are losing along the defensive line. Defensive end T.J. Carter’s 28 consecutive starts, 71 career tackles to go along with 12 tackles for loss and 6 QB sacks will be missed. Same can be said of 2019 All-SEC defensive end Calvin Taylor Jr. Taylor had 22 consecutive starts and recorded 85 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks during his stay in Lexington. His 8.5 sacks in 2019 ranked 2nd in the SEC.
Replacing Carter and Taylor Jr. will be two familiar names: Phil Hoskins and Josh Paschal. Hoskins (6’5, 315) is benefitting from a 6th year of eligibility. He displayed productivity during his sole year of playing for Kentucky by racking up 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 3 sacks in a reserve role in 2018. Joining Hoskins is Josh Paschal who’s moving from the “Jack” linebacker position to defensive end. Paschal is listed at 6’3, 278-pounds and is highly athletic for a defender that will play with his hand in the dirt. Paschal’s 19 career starts will be helpful as the redshirt junior racked up 34 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks a year ago.
Senior veteran Kordell Looney (6’3, 290) is the 3rd defensive end and has played a ton of snaps.
Nose Tackle is a position group that offers a plethora of depth and experience. The starter of the group is 6’4, 347-pound senior Quinton Bohanna. Bohanna has started 19 consecutive games and has 49 career tackles to go along with 7 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. Defensive coordinator Brad White has pushed Bohanna to be great. The Memphis native has all the tools to be just that and to play on Sundays. Joining Bohanna is Marquan McCall who is listed at 6’3, 379-pounds. The junior would be a starter for many SEC programs and there is very little decline when he substitutes for Bohanna.
Defensive line depth is comprised with the aforementioned McCall and Looney. Joining those two will be Isaiah Gibson. The 6’3, 302-pound redshirt freshman hails from Springfield, Ohio where he was coached by former UK great Mo Douglass. Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald had a promising sophomore campaign after playing in all 13 games. Abadi-Fitzgerald fits that bill measuring 6’6, 296-pounds. Jerquavion Mahone played in four games in 2019 and recorded one sack.
Mark Stoops signed one of the top defensive line classes in the nation. The collection of 4 and 5-star players have the potential, ability, and maturity to contribute as a true freshmen. The sky is the limit for the former 5-star prospect Justin Rogers who was rated as the number 10 overall player in the Class of 2020 by Rivals. North Hardin’s 4-star defensive lineman Octavious Oxendine was an early enrollee and has been praised by the defensive coaches during fall camp. Tre’vonn Rybka was a 4-star out of Tennessee. The 6’4, 310-pounder was productive in high school by accruing 170 career tackles and 25 tackles for loss. Josaih Hayes was a Signing Day surprise. The 4-star recruit was the No. 2 player in the state of Mississippi.
Coach Anwar Stewart has a highly talented group of defensive lineman that are taking on the personality of their position coach. Due to the skill level, maturity, and desire of the four true freshman, upperclassmen will have to produce on a daily basis to maintain their status on the depth chart. Competition is a coach’s best friend. Expect to see an energetic and technically sound unit as Coach Stewart will bring a high level of energy to challenge his deep unit in every meeting, practice, and game.
Who Calls the Shots
In a surprise move, Derrick LeBlanc left Lexington after three seasons to join Sam Pittman and his new staff at Arkansas in January. That meant Mark Stoops was on the hunt for the third defensive line coach of his tenure. He decided to go with a familiar face.
Welcome back, Anwar Stewart! Our new defensive line coach.
— Kentucky Football (@UKFootball) January 10, 2020
Anwar Stewart played at Kentucky from 1996-99 and had one of the biggest special teams plays in program history when he returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in UK’s 1997 upset victory over Alabama. Stewart would go on to play in the Canadian Football League for 13 seasons with four Grey Cup championships. He returned to UK to earn his degree in 2017 and served as a defensive assistant on the staff for two years.
He took his first full-time job last year coaching an App State defensive line that anchored a unit that finished in the top-40 in defensive efficiency in 2019. Stewart is very familiar with UK’s personnel and staff making this a very comfortable fit.
“I’m very excited to return to where it all started for me,” Stewart said. “Coach Stoops is doing it better than it’s ever been done before at UK. I know his vision and I know what it takes to coach under him. I’m excited to learn from Coach Stoops, Coach White and the other coaches on the staff. I know I will grow as a man and as a father as well.”
He inherits a loaded position room with a ton of potential both in 2020 and in the immediate future.
Biggest Question Mark
Throughout the Stoops era, Kentucky’s 3-4 defense has been setup for its linebackers and safeties to make a lot of plays. Josh Allen became the best defensive player in college football at EDGE while both Mike Edwards and Yusuf Corker led the team in tackles from safety spots. That has meant a lot of dirty work for the guys in the trenches.
UK has constantly asked its three-down to eat up blocks to free their linebackers and safeties to make tackles. However, we saw more playmaking occur from this position group last season when Calvin Taylor Jr. became one of the best interior pass rushers in college football. Now the staff has decided to slide EDGE player Josh Paschal down to get more athleticism at the position. Brad White is even calling out the most experienced player on his defense.
“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.
White is of course talking about senior Quinton Bohanna who many around the program consider to be an elite player. It seems like UK is planning on being more aggressive on defense and that means they need more from their defensive line. Can this unit cause more havoc?
One Bold Prediction
“Josh Paschal will be an All-SEC defensive end.”
Paschal was a monster recruiting win in the class of 2017 and it was the first recruitment where Vince Marrow stepped out of the state of Ohio to secure a player. Paschal became a factor in his true freshman season before cancer took away his sophomore year. He returned in 2019 and played well, but now he is moving to a position that is tailor-made for his skill set.
The DMV native is a twitchy 278-pounder with some sudden quickness that will allow him to shoot gaps. He has the potential to become a really good run stuffer that could gobble up run stuffs in addition to some tools as a pass rusher.
At full-time end, Paschal will play a heavy amount of snaps and should be able to collect numbers. He will compete for all-conference honors after a monster redshirt junior season.