The point of attack sets the tone. On defense, a unit cannot truly be successful unless its front is creating a new line of scrimmage or setting up stalemates to push the offense off schedule.
After some very successful recruiting combined with some returning experience, Kentucky’s defensive line room has very high expectations heading into 2021. As Anwar Stewart enters his second season as the defensive line coach, the Wildcats look to set the ton on defense with their interior play.
Kentucky has a good blend of experience and youth in the room to go along with plenty of blue-chip talent. The defensive line has a chance to be the deepest positional unit on the team and needs to be one of the best groups on the defense so the Wildcats can reach their potential this fall.
Marquan McCall: The former top-200 prospect and highest-ranked player in the class of 2018, McCall heads into his senior season as the clear-cut starter at nose tackle for the first time in his career. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 379 pounds, McCall is a mountain in the middle of the line of scrimmage and is very difficult to move. With 31 career games played, the man nicknamed “Bully” has turned up his game as a senior.
“Where I’ve seen him grow the most is from a leadership standpoint,” said defensive coordinator Brad White during spring practice. “Since he came back in January, he knows that he’s a senior. This is his team. We’ve got a great group of seniors with him and Josh Paschal, [DeAndre] Square and you go to the back end with Yusuf [Corker] and Ty [Ajian], but from a front perspective, he’s like, ‘Okay, this is MY unit. They’re going to follow me.’ He’s come with a focus and a leadership mentality that shows a maturity growth, something that’s real exciting.”
Josh Paschal: A redshirt senior with 25 career starts under his belt, the ceiling is very high for Paschal. The DMV native and former four-star recruit played at an All-SEC level last season before injuring his knee in the win against Mississippi State. With 20.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks in his career, Paschal is the most accomplished player along the defensive line. The veteran has led the team in run stuffs the last two seasons and can be a true game-wrecker.
“I don’t think it’s any surprise that Josh Paschal is showing up, but I feel like he’s a guy that’s taking it to another level where you see a very good player turn into a game wrecker at times,” said Mark Stoops at the culmination of spring practice. “There’s times in practice or in a scrimmage where he can take over and be very disruptive, so it’s good to see him growing that way.”
Isaiah Gibson: An underrated recruiting win in the class of 2019, Gibson enters his redshirt sophomore season still under the radar. However, the Springfield (Ohio) High product could emerge as a legit player along the defensive line in 2021. Last season, Gibson played in nine games and recorded five tackles. The third spot along the defensive line is wide open, but Gibson may be the favorite to be the final starter after fall camp.
Abule Abadi-Fitzgerald: A redshirt senior, Abule-Fitzgerald came to the program from Florida and has played in 18 games as a reserve the last two seasons. The 6-foot-6 defensive lineman has just four career tackles, but he provides much-needed length to a position room that doesn’t have a ton of long bodies at the moment.
Justin Rogers: The highest-rated recruit during the Mark Stoops era, Rogers received limited playing time as a true freshman last season. The Detroit native played in seven games last fall recording nine tackles. Rogers figures to be an important part of the defensive line rotation this fall.
Josaih Hayes: The major blue-chip recruiting win for the program out of Mississippi in the class of 2020, Hayes played in five games last year while recording two tackles as he adjusted to the college game. At 6-foot-3 and 314 pounds, Hayes has the size and power to go along with some positional athleticism. This is another high ceiling prospect that will look to crack the rotation this season.
Octavious Oxendine: Another 2020 recruiting win, Oxendine came out of Radcliff (Ky.) North Hardin and picked Kentucky over Tennessee. At 6-foot-1 and 318 pounds, the interior player does not provide much length but should be a problem at the point of attack. The redshirt freshman played in three games last season.
Tre’vonn Rybka: The Tennessee native was another 2020 recruiting class member who could emerge as the top reserve to Paschal this season. At 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, Rybka brings both size and length to the position to go along with some pass-rushing potential. The top-500 recruit did not get any game action last season.
Sam Anaele: Believe it or not, this was another class of 2020 member who is making a position change his second season on campus. Similar to Paschal, Anaele is moving from the edge to the defensive line and the former top-300 recruit has plenty of promise. This is a developmental project, but the ceiling is very high for the 6-foot-4, 275-pound redshirt freshman out of South Florida.
Jamarius Dinkins: A class of 2021 signee that will enroll in school this summer, Dinkins is a prospect with plenty of traits. The Columbus (Ohio) Walnut Ridge product is 6-foot-6 with very long arms, but the true freshman needs time to develop.
Kahlil Saunders: Saunders will also arrive this summer and the true freshman from Alabama provides some much-needed length to the position room. The three-star prospect flashed play strength on his high school tape and could become a rotational piece after some development time.