When he was a high school recruit, Kentucky had a sort of double coverage on Marquan McCall.
When he wasn’t getting calls from offensive line coach John Schlarman, he was getting messages from defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc.
“They’d both call me and try to persuade me,” said the four-star freshman from Detroit’s Oak Park High School.
For a while, UK’s coaches weren’t sure on which side of the ball the 6-foot-3, 368-pound freshman was going to end up, but they knew that they needed to make sure he was on a Kentucky line.
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“We looked at him on both sides of the ball and felt like he was versatile enough to play on either side,” Coach Mark Stoops said on signing day of McCall, one of the top players in the 2018 class. “The big thing is I wanted him playing at Kentucky, and whatever side of the ball was good with me.”
Mostly an offensive lineman during his high school days, McCall still isn’t exactly sure how he ended up a defensive guy at Kentucky, but it just felt right.
“I actually prefer offensive line,” the true freshman defensive tackle laughed on Wednesday. “I just wanted to try something new. At first, I was like, I’m all offense, but then Coach LeBlanc kept coming.”
From the moment LeBlanc saw the film of McCall, he knew the player belonged on the defensive line.
“You know how hard it is to find d-linemen in college ball now?” LeBlanc said. “There’s not enough big guys, so watching his film, I saw a defensive lineman.
“He’s physical, he’s athletic and he’s tough and that’s something we needed here. I just fought to keep him on our side of the ball, and I think it’s going to work out for him.”
Even watching McCall as an offensive lineman, LeBlanc was determined to get him to flip. Once he saw the player in person, it got even more urgent.
“He’s physical. He’s a big, old brute and he loves to play football,” LeBlanc said of McCall during fall camp. “When we went to watch him play high school, he just mauled people.
“On fourth-and-short, they put Marquan in and the (opposing) offense couldn’t run the ball. This kid can play defense for us. He’s got size, got ability, we just have to condition him to play.”
McCall thought he was still in that conditioning phase while penciled in at No. 3 nose guard behind sophomore standout Quinton Bohanna and emerging senior Tymere Dubose.
But after Bohanna suffered another ankle injury at Florida on Saturday, Cats coaches decided it was McCall’s time to get acquainted with the Southeastern Conference.
“They called my name and told me to get ready,” he recalled from the Florida game. “I didn’t know it was actually going to happen. It was shocking.”
It’s hard to imagine a 368-pound man with broad shoulders and massive hands being timid, but he was on that first snap.
“I was very, very nervous,” he said of going in at The Swamp. “I just thought I was going to mess everything up. I didn’t know what to expect. I jumped on the first play because I was just over excited.”
Eventually McCall settled in.
He played “just like any freshman,” said defensive coordinator Matt House, who lauded McCall’s explosiveness. “He had some learning moments, but I definitely didn’t think he didn’t belong.”
Those learning moments are going to continue for a while.
When you’re McCall’s size in high school, you don’t have to work really hard to be dominant, he said.
Teammates and coaches are helping him become the type of defensive lineman they envision him to be.
“When you play o-line, especially in high school, you jog to the ball, he’s got to get that motor up,” LeBlanc said in August. “He’s got to move over to the defensive style of ball. He’s got all the tools. He’s got to get in shape and he’s got to get that motor up.”
People think playing defensive line is just lining up and hitting the player in front of you, LeBlanc said. Coaches are making sure that McCall understands it’s a lot more than that so he can be dangerous in the next few years.
McCall’s all for that, even if he sometimes feels like he’s still on the wrong side of the ball.
“Putting structure on me is exactly what I needed; I thank coach LeBlanc for that,” the freshman said. “He’s like a father figure to me. I’ve never had that in my life, so for him to step up and be that, I appreciate that and it’s a blessing.”
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