Even missing a tackle or arriving late to the quarterback are blessings to Kentucky fifth-year senior defensive end Josh Paschal.
Not that those are common occurrences.
In July 2018, the 6-foot-3, 278-pounder from Prince George's County, Maryland, was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma that would result in three surgeries and months of immunotherapy treatments. The scariest aspect even today with the diagnoses was the location — on the bottom of his right foot near the big toe.
"It was on a spot that you don't really recognize, so thankfully we have trainers who tape up ankles and stuff like that, and they were able to see it," Paschal said last week at SEC Media Days. "I went to a podiatrist to get it looked at, and they sent me to a dermatologist. After that, they took a biopsy, and after the preliminary results came back, that was enough for them to remove it.
"I was going to be good for the first game that season. They had stitched my foot back up, but when I went to my follow-up appointment, that's when they told me that things were different from what they had first thought and that the cancer had reached some depth to where it could travel and that I would need some treatment and some surgeries."
Paschal's debut during that 2018 season transpired in the 11th game against Middle Tennessee State in Lexington. When he made a third-down tackle that forced a punt and had his name called out over the Kroger Field public address system, Paschal was mobbed by teammates and received a standing ovation.
He recorded a lost-yardage stop the following week against rival Louisville and played in the 27-24 topping of Penn State that capped Kentucky's first 10-win season since 1977, but his adventure didn't end there. On May 6, 2019, Paschal shared his story on NBC's "The Today Show," and it just so happened that Jennifer Lopez was performing the same morning.
"Her dressing room was right outside our waiting area," Paschal said with a grin. "She kept going back and forth to change into different outfits, and my mom was the biggest fan girl. I'm trying to play it cool, but I saw her and made eye contact with her. She winked at me, and I melted.
"That's the only way I can explain it. I just melted."
Last year: 5-6 (4-6 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Louisiana-Monroe in Lexington (noon on SEC Network)
Fun fact: Kentucky has been to 10 bowl games in the past 15 years after going to 10 bowls previously.
Up next: LSU
Fast forward to 2021, and Paschal will enter his final season with the Wildcats having played in 40 career games with 25 starts. He has amassed 21.5 career tackles for loss, including 6.5 last season to go along with his 32 overall tackles and a 76-yard interception return against Mississippi State.
Paschal's production has helped Kentucky coach Mark Stoops achieve five consecutive bowl appearances at a program that has never made six straight postseason trips.
"It has been a great blessing to be a part of this," Paschal said. "He has been our coach since we've been here, so our leader has been the same. Coach Stoops instills a great culture and has a great program. He wants us to be a player-led team and gives us the opportunity to voice our thoughts to him."
Stoops is as stable as any Southeastern Conference coach not named Nick Saban or Kirby Smart, but new offensive coordinator Liam Coen will be under an immediate microscope. Coen spent the past three seasons with the Los Angeles Rams, serving as assistant receivers coach in the 2018-19 seasons and as assistant quarterbacks coach last year, and he has the chore of improving a unit that ranked 115th nationally a season ago in total offense (318.0 yards per game) and 122nd in passing offense (121.5).
Coen's candidates at quarterback are Beau Allen, Joey Gatewood, who transferred last year from Auburn, and Will Levis, who transferred earlier this year from Penn State.
"It took me some time to clearly look at what I wanted our team to look like and what I felt like we can do," Stoops said, "so I spent quite a bit of time researching people and systems and ultimately came down to Liam. I have full confidence and trust in him. Part of his system and part of the offense is to be able to do play-action passes and get the ball down the field.
"I felt like this spring we got the ball down the field better than we have in years, so I feel very good about it."
A lot of folks are feeling good about the Wildcats, who were picked to finish third in the Eastern Division behind Georgia and Florida. Of course, Paschal doesn't wake up each day dreaming of bronze medals.
"We want to push for more than third," he said. "We want to be first in the SEC. That takes work. We know it's not going to be handed to us.
"Our goal is to get to Atlanta, and we'll work on that each and every day."
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