(Photo courtesy of Lexington Herald-Leader)
One of the biggest changes on the University of Kentucky football coaching staff for the 2017 season was the addition of defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc. After Jimmy Brumbaugh’s departure, head coach Mark Stoops added the former North Texas defensive line coach to take over the “big uglies” on the UK defensive line. His impact was immediately felt. In 2016, Brumbaugh’s last season, the Wildcat defense ranked 108th in total rushing defense, allowing 225 yards per game on the ground. In 2017, under new defensive line coach LeBlanc, this improved to 58th, allowing 162 yards per game. Now that Coach LeBlanc has had a full year of coaching his style of defensive line play, expectations will be high for UK’s defensive line to improve even further. Helping this cause will be the return of all four starting defensive linemen. Add to that the depth of redshirt freshmen and incoming impact freshmen and you have the recipe for a defensive line that many have never seen at UK.
The first returning starter is at the defensive tackle position, where Adrian Middleton (6’3”, 305) will anchor the defensive line. Middleton was a special talent for the Wildcats in 2017, starting all 13 games at defensive tackle. He had 14 solo tackles and 11 assisted tackles for a total of 25. He also added 3.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack on the season. Middleton will likely be backed up at defensive tackle by Kordell Looney (6’3”, 295). Looney played in 11 games in 2017, with 10 total tackles (3 solo, 7 assisted). Junior college transfer Phil Hoskins will also be in competition for the backup defensive tackle position. The freshman is listed at 6’5″, 280, but has reportedly put on muscle since he has arrived at UK and can be a major contributor for the Wildcats in 2018. An improved interior push from this position will help both the linebackers and outside lineman to apply pressure to the quarterback.
(Photo courtesy of Louisville Courier-Journal)
The next returning starter is nose guard Quinton Bohanna (6’4”, 320). Bohanna made an immediate impact in 2017 with 14 total tackles and a pass breakup. While his numbers are not eye-popping, his impact was felt by the constant disruption that he provided, often driving an offensive lineman into the backfield. Bohanna is strong and plays with a mean streak. The backup nose guard position is currently up for grabs, but Tymere Dubose (6’5”, 320) is a candidate to get playing time here. Dubose is a big body, with a very mean streak. He could provide depth here, as well at defensive tackle. Competing with Dubose for the backup role will be the 6’4”, 320-pound incoming freshman Marquan McCall. McCall was rated by some services as the #1 player in the state of Michigan. He is a versatile lineman, playing both offensive guard and defensive tackle for Oak Park High School. McCall will provide an immediate impact, both in depth and style of play. He had 15 total tackles and multiple sacks as a senior
(Photo courtesy of Cats illustrated.com)
At defensive end, T.J. Carter (6’4”, 280) has quietly provided solid, consistent play. Carter started all 13 games at defensive end in 2017 and had 18 total tackles, along with 3.0 sacks and a pass breakup. Kengera Daniel (6’5”, 260) will backup T.J. Carter. Daniel played in 12 games in 2017 with 6 total tackles and a sack. Behind Daniel will be redshirt freshman Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald (6’6”, 270). Abadi-Fitzgerald can play multiple defensive line positions but projects best at defensive end. By all accounts, Abadi-Fitzgerald is an athletic freak. He came to UK built like a senior, but very raw, having played football for only two seasons, one at the varsity level. His development during his redshirt year has been remarkable (by all accounts he has added muscle and is near 300 pounds now) and he will be a force behind Carter and Daniel.
(Photo courtesy of 247Sports)
The last defensive line position is one that, depending on the package the Wildcats are in defensively, can be a “hand down” pass rusing defensive end position. This position is one that has a 2017 preseason all-SEC starter returning in Denzil Ware (6’2”, 250). Ware was an absolute force for the Wildcats in 2017, as part of the “Blitz Brothers” with outside linebacker Josh Allen. Ware had 47 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, 9.0 tackles for loss, one interception, 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumbles recovered. Ware will be backed up by “Baby Blitz” Joshua Paschal (6’3”, 270). Paschal was an impact player as a freshman, with 17 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and a blocked kick. Any other year, Paschal would be starting for UK, but because of Ware’s return, he will again be an instant pass rush threat on passing downs. Jamar “Boogie” Watson (6’3”, 250) is an option to be the third defensive end behind Ware and Paschal. Watson, in a reserve role, had 7 total tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.
The three deep of defensive line positions is littered with talent and experience. In the depth chart, you have 10 out of 12 positions who have in-game experience:
DE: T.J. Carter; Kengera Daniel; Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald
DT: Adrian Middleton; Kordell Looney/Phil Hoskins
NG: Quinton Bohanna; Tymere Dubose; Marquan McCall
DE/OLB: Denzil Ware; Joshua Paschal; Jamar “Boogie” Watson
There are others who will contribute to the defensive line in 2018 for Kentucky. Qua Mahone is a class of 2018 signee who may contribute immediately. Also, Davoan Hawkins has the physical tools necessary to be an impact freshman for the defensive line group. Chris Whittaker is a freshman who redshirted and, like Abadi-Fitzgerald, has put on muscle during his redshirt year. With this stable of talent, the defensive line could very well be one of the best units on the Kentucky football team. Improved play from the defensive line will help the linebackers to make plays, especially in the run game. Improved defensive line play also helps the defensive backs to be able to cover receivers better, as pressure on the quarterback makes coverage easier. It will be interesting to see how the battle for reserve roles plays out, but there should be no doubt who the defensive line starters are.