LEXINGTON, Ky. — Barely a week away from the season opener, Kentucky football coaches are still praising 6-foot-4, 320-pound true freshman defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna. But they pumped the brakes just a bit after Thursday’s practice.
“He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s showing great effort. He’s a big guy. He’s fairly athletic. But keep in mind he’s still a freshman,” defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc said. “It’s up to us to kind of take care of him and make sure he’s ready to play if we need him.”
Bohanna has been mentioned as a standout almost from Day 1 of preseason camp and recently got some first-team work at nose guard, where seniors Naquez Pringle and Matt Elam began this month as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.
“Fall camp, that’s the time to find out. If we think he’s going to play, let’s throw him in against the starters and see if he holds up,” LeBlanc said. So did he? “He’s getting there. Every now and then, he’s off and on as a young guy, but if we need him, we’ll definitely have him ready. Playing defensive line is not easy, and for an 18-year-old to come in and play against some adults, that’s hard. So before we make any decisions about if he’s going to play or not, we’ve got to make sure he’s ready — especially in this conference.”
Whether Bohanna plays might depend most on what Pringle and Elam can deliver in their final season. They combined for 48 tackles (only two for loss) in 2016.
“They decide if Quinton’s going to play or not. It’s on them,” LeBlanc said. “I’m going to make them work for it until [the Sept. 2 opener against Southern Miss]. They decide by their play.”
Elam is attempting to rewrite the narrative of his college career. The former 5-star recruit who spurned Alabama to stay home and play for Kentucky has yet to live up to his enormous hype — but he vowed to make a change after SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy called him lazy and underachieving on national television this summer.
“We’ve made a lot of progress with Matt,” LeBlanc said. “His body looks good. He’s leaner, he’s running around faster, he’s moving good. There’s a sense of competition out here.”
Pringle, a barrel-chested, 6-foot-3, 320-pound powerhouse who transferred from junior college last season, remains the favorite to play most of the snaps at nose guard this fall. But after seeing Bohanna, he’s taking nothing for granted.
“He’s new, so he’s trying to outwork everybody,” Pringle said. “He’s trying to get his name out there, so he’s doing very good things out there. His urgency to get to the ball, that’s what’s most impressive about him. So I’m just going to have to stay on my tippy toes and keep on working.”
Other notables from Thursday’s post-practice interviews with defensive players and coaches:
- Another day, another rave review of 4-star freshman Josh Paschal, one of the most talked-about newcomers this camp. He’s running No. 2 at “Jack” (an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid) behind All-SEC junior Denzil Ware, but coaches have made it clear Paschal will play. Position coach Dean Hood worried that a weeklong absence due to injury had derailed the freshman’s chance to make an early impact, but “he came right back and it’s like he never missed a day.” Additionally, Hood said, junior Jordan Bonner has had “a great camp” playing at both outside linebacker positions.
- Redshirt freshman Davonte Robinson, a Lexington native, has impressed coordinator Matt House at safety. “He’s a guy that can make plays on the football. His athleticism and speed are really pretty good for a safety. And he’s made less mistakes — a lot less than in the spring,” House said.
- House believes the defensive line made a big jump from the team’s first preseason scrimmage to the second — “At times, we were really changing the line of scrimmage” — and the defense overall was much more sound. He said there were just five missed tackles in the last scrimmage. “Our leverage on the ball was better. Our eye control was better, which is fundamental to playing good defense: not wandering [with your eyes].”
- Cornerback Derrick Baity took great exception to the coaches’ declaration that quarterback Stephen Johnson has still not thrown an interception in 11-on-11 drills this preseason. “ What?! Do you know who Stephen has to go against? He goes against players like Mike Edwards, Chris Westry, Darius West — Derrick Baity! It’s no way,” he said. “We got stat sheets in there. I think I got like three interceptions. Mike got four interceptions. [Freshman corner] Yusuf Corker got like five interceptions.”
- Baity sought out Edwards for backup on this subject, asking what he thought of the idea Johnson hasn’t thrown a pick in camp. “It’s your fault,” Edwards said. “I don’t think he has, to be honest.” Baity dropped his head, finally conceding: “If he hasn’t thrown an interception, it’s because he didn’t throw the ball. Like, he tucked it and ran. That’s the only reason.”
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