UK head coach Mark Stoops said Tuesday that junior TraVaughn Paschal has been one of the pleasant surprises during fall camp. The 6-foot-2, 242-pound Maryland native saw limited action in seven games last season, recording only four tackles, but finds himself at No. 2 on the defensive end depth chart heading into the opener against Western Kentucky.
"TraVaughn is just a very good player. Very explosive. Very fast," Stoops said. "We've played him standing up (as a linebacker) a little bit, too, and he's done a nice job."
Opportunity knocked for Paschal this month when high-profile junior college signee Za'Darius Smith missed almost two weeks of practice with a high-ankle sprain. The setback for his teammate gave Paschal a chance to prove he could help the Wildcats this season, and he often delivered.
Data from strength and conditioning coach Erik Korem's high-tech practice monitoring system also led to the revelation that perhaps Paschal could be more than just a defensive end.
"When we stood him up (at linebacker), it surprised me," Stoops said. "… When coach (D.J.) Eliot first brought it up to me, I was a little hesitant on that, but I started looking at the numbers from our GPS system, and I see how fast he's running. He's faster than any of our linebackers, at least on the reports that I'm getting, so we've been experimenting and moving him around a little. He's a good player."
From Paschal's point of view, any position is a welcome one. His long road from high school football to significant playing time at UK included a two-year stop at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia and a freshman year with the Wildcats where he was ineligible to play due to spending more than one year at prep school.
Last season, Paschal mainly had to watch from the sideline as UK's defense was shredded on a weekly basis en route to a 2-10 record.
"I'm so ready to get out there," he said. "I'm itching to play. I've finally got my opportunity. I've been here for a few years, so I'm just ready to get out there and make some noise."
According to Pashcal, the new defensive system that Stoops and Eliot brought to UK from Florida State fits his style of play well.
"I'm very versatile," he said. "I can play a true end, the technique that everyone else plays, or I can play linebacker. I'm fast, one of the fastest guys on the defense, especially for my size."
Paschal said there aren't many players on the UK roster who can outrun him. "A couple of wide receivers and defensive backs," he noted with a smile.
Toning Things Down:
The Wildcats had a physical practice on Tuesday, according to Stoops. From this point until kickoff on Saturday in Nashville, workouts are expected to lighten up.
"Good practice," the UK boss said. "It was good and hot. It was good and physical day. Got a lot of work in. One day, one step closer.
"We're going to start cutting it back now. We've been going at it pretty good. Just got some reports from coach Korem as I was walking off the field. We'll obviously still have a pretty good practice tomorrow in pads and all that, but we'll start tapering it."
The focus of UK's Tuesday workout was third-down situations, particularly on defense. It's an area which has haunted the Cats for several years. Last season, opponents converted an eye-popping 52 precent (91 of 174) on third-down conversions, which placed UK 120th – dead last – in the FBS. Top defenses strive to be under 35 percent.
How does the new staff solve that problem?
"I think you've got to spend a good amount of time on it," Stoops said. "You gotta be multiple. You gotta change things up. You gotta pressure. You gotta play coverage. You gotta mix your coverages up, mix your pressures up, and you've got to be able to execute them. That's the big thing.
"Us coaches, we can stay in here all night and draw up so many different things – a lot of good things – but what can your players execute? That's what it comes down to – great execution."
Easing Willis In:
Junior college signee Nate Willis, who joined the program last week after being cleared by the NCAA, has worked his way to second-team on the depth chart at cornerback, but the Cats aren't putting too much pressure on him to do any more at this point.
"He's just trying to take care of Nate right now, which he should be doing," Stoops said. "He was behind in his summer conditioning, and then trying to keep up with the pace, he's struggled here and there with a few nagging things and all that."
Stoops has previously stated that Willis has impressed him with his cover skills and ability to pick up the defensive scheme quickly.
The Wildcats expect to start sophomores Fred Tiller and Cody Quinn at corner on Saturday against the Hilltoppers. They'll be backed up by Willis and freshman Jaleel Hytchye.