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By LARRY VAUGHT
Just as Mark Stoops got ready to start his first signing day press conference as coach at Kentucky, he stood up and walked away from the podium. He got a banner of Louisville Trinity defensive end Jason Hatcher, who had signed with UK minutes before, and put in on the wall with banners of 21 other UK signees as a horde of media members watched.
Accidental? No way.
Stoops knew landing the 6-3, 250-pound Hatcher, a four-star recruit, was a special way to end signing day and sent a strong message about what he had done in just over two months. Remember Hatcher was originally committed to Southern Cal and even when he de-committed, many thought it would be to stay home and play for Louisville.
Instead, Stoops and UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot never backed off and they pulled off a recruiting gem by landing him just one day after four-star Franklin County receiver Ryan Timmons turned down Florida, Illinois and Ohio State to join the UK class.
“With the addition of Jason we signed three players (Clay County defensive tackle Jacob Hyde was the third) from Kentucky and Jason was important in a lot of ways. Important person, great family. Mama was Louisville. That was hard to get around for a while but a great person. Gives us great credibility in moving forward,” said Stoops.
That’s because Hatcher was rated No. 8 in the country by Rivals.com, No. 10 by Scout.com, No. 14 by ESPN.com and No. 16 by 247Sports.com at his position. He made 37 tackles as a senior, including 13.5 quarterback sacks and four additional tackles for loss, during Trinity’s state championship season in 2012 and 40 tackles and 12 sacks his junior season.. He played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio this year.
“What makes him so dynamic is how explosive he is. He’s very good on his feet. He’s very good off the edge. He can do a lot of things but it’s his first step. He’s dynamic with his quickness and speed and athletic ability. We’re excited about that,” Stoops said.
Eliot went all-in with Hatcher as soon as he left Florida State — where he worked on Stoops’ defensive staff — and got to Kentucky.
“When I got hired as the first assistant, my first two stops were Ryan Timmons and then Jason Hatcher. We started building that relationship with Jason from day one and within this month’s span, we were able to get him to flip from USC and sign with us,” Eliot said. “He’s extremely motivated to be a great player. He has the skills to be fantastic but it’s kind of what he has that I think is going to make him special. I’m really looking forward to coaching him.”
He’s not the only gem in the class. Kentucky went into Ohio and got three solid players led by safety Marcus McWilson. Half of UK’s signees — 11 — are from the state of Florida, including highly-touted four-star running back JoJo Kemp. Kentucky got Javess Blue, perhaps the nation’s best junior college receiver, and Za’Darius Smith, one of the best junior college defensive ends.
But convincing Hatcher to play at UK was a perception bonanza for Kentucky and only adds to the excitement Stoops has built since taking over a team that went 2-10 last year under Joker Phillips.
How did he convince Hatcher to stay and become the first Trinity player to sign with UK in years?
“It’s about relationships, it’s about presenting a plan, how we — we’re going to use him. Things we have done in the past, the way our defense works, how he’s going to fit into it and, again, we had to make up a lot of time in relationships and we spent a lot of time with Jason and his family, his mother, Donna. We spent a lot of time and effort into that,” Stoops said.
On the last home visit, Stoops took three assistants with him. On a visit to Trinity, he took four coaches with him.
“They were gracious enough to spend a bunch of time with us, and they got a chance to see us and see what we’re all about,” Stoops said.
Eliot knew it would be a “challenge” to get Hatcher.
“But I felt like that we had something to offer him that he was going to be interested in, so I kept going after him,” the UK defensive coordinator said.
That never-give-up attitude has been a change in UK recruiting. This staff signed eight four-star players in this class. Eight. That’s never been done before at UK.
“One thing we sold them on is that everything coach Stoops has been responsible for his entire career, he’s been successful.
Whether he’s been an assistant coach at Miami, whether he was the defensive coordinator at Miami, whether he was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State or whether he was the defensive coordinator at Florida State,” Eliot said. “He took a program or a position and he made it better, and most of those exponentially better. We sold them (recruits) that he’s got a plan for being a head coach and he’s got a track record of being successful and he’s going to do the same thing here.”
The recruits obviously listened, and believed.