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By ASHLEY SCOBY
In a season of multiple 13-yard punts, an anemic offense and late-in-the-season suspensions, it seems fitting that an interception by Kentucky’s Jaleel Hytchye would skirt off his hands and into Jason Croom’s for a Volunteers touchdown this weekend. It’s been a season of mishaps and misfortune for UK, full of injuries and bizarre plays that have put a damper on Mark Stoops’ first season in blue and white.
The light at the end of the tunnel for Kentucky fans, though, has been the recruits Stoops has brought to the program – players like Hytchye, who, although he couldn’t reel in that particular interception Saturday, has seen significant playing time this year and looks to make an even bigger impact next season.
Hytchye came out of high school rated by ESPN as a top 25 cornerback, as well as the 20th-best recruit in Ohio last year. He became Stoops’ first 2013 recruit and quickly took it upon himself to help the coaching staff recruit other top players to Lexington.
Now, Hytchye has a season in the SEC under his belt, having played in eight games, and starting against Georgia when the position was decimated by injury (Nate Willis) and suspension (Cody Quinn). He recorded 9 tackles on the season, including 7 in the Georgia game he started.
“I came out here and I got on the field,” Hytchye said. “I got the experience I needed. Everything I need to move forward is right in front of me. All my goals are still there. Everything I want to accomplish is still there. The season was a great season of experience and now I’m ready to get after it next season.”
The cornerback position next year figures to be much improved from this season’s. Not a single Kentucky corner recorded an interception this year, and safety Ashely Lowery’s pick in the Tennessee game was the first one by a UK defensive back.
“I’m not going to say it’s not frustrating,” Hytchye said of the 2013 season. “But at the same time, I feel like it’s going to define who we are in the future as far as being a better team because we’ve already been through it and the ‘almost making it.’ The only place we can go now is being better, making the plays we need to make to win the games, winning in close game situations and just being better in all areas.”
For Hytchye personally, he says he wants to focus on getting bigger, stronger and faster – a popular goal for the team, thanks to Stoops’ focus on improving the team’s physical stature. A tenet in sports has long held that a team will take on the personality of its coach, and Hytchye’s physical goals certainly reflect that.
His passion for the game, too, is something that meshes well with the coaching staff, he said. Late in the Tennessee game, Hytchye was flagged for pass interference – a call that he, the fanbase and the rest of the Kentucky sideline strongly disagreed with. Stoops was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his verbal attack of the officials after the call.
“I’m not going to say I was happy, but it was kind of a good thing that he had my back because I was upset about it,” Hytchye said. “We’ve both got to settle down in a situation like that, but I feel like I was in great position. I feel like by no means did I interfere with the other receiver and so when they called that, I was furious. He reacted the same way.”
That refusal by the head coach to give up on his player is what gives Hytchye the most faith that next year will be a better season for Kentucky football.
“Even though our season didn’t go as planned, there’s a lot of teams that would have folded,” Hytchye said. “Just them (the coaching staff) keeping the same attitude towards us and us keeping the same attitude, you can tell something’s going to happen. Something’s going to change. We’ve been close in a lot of games. … This coaching staff is going to get us there. … It’s the best coaching staff in the country, and I think the coming years will show that.”