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- ESPN’s Jay Bilas has fun watching Gators, a team without “big shots going pro” after one year
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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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was elated to have Florida freshman defensive lineman Reggie Meant back at practice today.
“He missed about the first seven days. He’s been impressive. He’s a big – a grown man. He’s going to be a good player, very physical, good player,” said Stoops.
He says Meant’s “pit bull mentality” is something he noticed immediately.
“The other day before he was cleared, we were doing board drills and getting after it and everyone’s getting hyped up and he was standing behind me, looked like he was going to hurt me if I didn’t let him go. So I think he’s got that mentality, which is good. But we’re getting more and more of it (on the team),” Stoops said.
He says Meant is the kind of pleasant surprise a team needs.
“There’s a perfect example of it. Again, we want to recruit at a high level. We want – shoot, for what it’s worth for you all – we want five-star guys, four-(star). We want to recruit the best players there are. But there’s a perfect example. Great. Going to be a very, very, very good football player. I don’t care. I don’t know what he was rated. I know he was rated low, but we love him,” Stoops said.
“I loved him all along, wanted him, and we were in a fight for him. He was a low-rated guy or whatever, but we were in fights for him, to get him, to sign him out of high school. We knew all along how important he was. I didn’t care how many stars he had by him, we wanted him and sure enough he’s going to be a good player.”
Stoops offered some other tidbits after practice:
— Junior college cornerback Nate Willis is in Lexington after getting cleared academically earlier this week. “Nate Willis is here, by the way. I forgot to mention that when I started. Nate’s here. I said that yesterday, that I hoped to get in there and have that information that he was cleared. And he’s here. He’s on campus, flew in this morning. He’s doing his physical and compliance and he’ll be out here this afternoon,” Stoops said.
— Zach Myers, who is competing with Zach West at center, left practice with a foot injury. “He twisted his foot. It was a foot injury. The initial diagnosis we got after he went in – I already got it back from our people – it looks like it’s nothing major, which is good news,” Stoops said. “There’s a real fine line that we’re always trying to toe. I said it from the very first day I was here: It’s a very physical league. You have to be tough and you have to be physical, but yet we’re not very deep. So we’re still going about our business, trying to find that balance. But we’ve been very physical. (Myers) got hurt on a physical drill at the beginning of practice, but we need that. We can’t slow down.”
— Cornerback Cody Quinn, a sophomore and expected starter, has been out with an ankle injury allowing true freshman Jalell Hytchye to take reps at the No. 1 spot. “Cody got the ankle. I don’t know if I’ve addressed that with you yet, Cody twisted an ankle as well and that doesn’t help matters at that position,” Stoops said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown values leadership at any position in recruitng and how well a recruit can get others to follow.
“You have got to have a little aura about you and have something people want to follow,” Brown said. “We have that in our 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes.”
He noted how Ohio defensive back Jaleel Hytchye , Stoops’ first verbal commit after he got to UK, turned down Big Ten and other SEC offers to come to Kentucky.
“He is an outgoing guy. People are drawn to him. He started the process and now guys in this class are taking it and running with it,” Brown said.
Brown said persuading in-state stars Jason Hatcher of Trinity and Ryan Timmons of Franklin County to sign with UK in February was a huge boost to recruiting.
“The best schools keep the best talent at home. Are we going to produce the same number of players at Alabama, Georgia, Florida? No. But there will be six to eight or maybe just four on a down year in Kentucky good enough to play for us. Maybe on a big year there will be 10 that can play SEC football in Kentucky. We have to make sure we get those guys to fit our needs,” Brown said.
“One of the first things coach Stoops talked to me about was that he did not have a background with Kentucky high school coaches but that we had to make inroads there and keep the best players at home. We didn’t get everybody, and won’t, but we did everything within the NCAA rules to get Jason and Ryan.”
Brown said Kentucky and Ohio will be UK’s home base and that the connections Stoops and other UK coaches have in Ohio have been huge in recruiting.
“But the biggest thing is any time your head coach is actively involved like he is, that gives you a great chance in recruiting,” Brown said. “The great thing with coach Stoops is that he was so involved with recruiting at his other coaching stops that he has continued on even doing more as a head coach.”
Leaving his mark is important for Cincinnati’s Jaleel Hytchye. That’s why he’s “grinding” his way through track season now in hopes of winning a state championship before he heads to Kentucky to try and help rejuvenate the football program under new coach Mark Stoops.
“I am focusing on track, but I am lifting (weights) to get stronger and hopefully I’ll make a run at a state championship and leave a legacy as far as that goes,” Hytchye, a cornerback, said. “I am working out with my trainer.”
Track season has had “ups and downs” for him because he keeps aggravating a hamstring injury.
“It has been nagging me every time I step on the track,” Hytchye said.
Still, he has Ohio’s best time in the 100-meter dash and second best in the 200-meter dash — and he’s not run the 200 since the first meet of the track season.
“I have an opportunity to win state. It’s just a matter of staying healthy and fresh (for the state meet June 7-8),” Hytchye said.
That state meet will keep Hytchye from reporting to UK quite as early in June as some Stoops’ recruits, but he plans to be on campus by June 20.
“I came down for the spring game. I am actually part of the reason that (running back) Mikel Horton committed. I took him and (Conner quarterback) Drew Barker out to meet fans,” Hytchye said. “I got to meet a lot of folks. I knew that big crowd was coming. I have seen how great the Kentucky fans are. Once they get even more reason to believe, I know how passionate they are. It’s just a matter of giving them hope and Stoops gave them hope. I knew they would have a big turnout at the spring game. I am ready to rock and roll right now.”
What about UK’s chances with Barker, who will make his commitment public Friday?
“We’ve got to get him on the team,” Hytchye said.
Same goes for Hytchye’s teammate, receiver Derek Keif. He’s a 6-5 receiver who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and averaged 90 yards per game for LaSalle High School as a junior. He’s got offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame and Alabama.
“He’s interested in Kentucky. I think it is between them, Alabama and Ohio State,” Hytchye said. “I basically leave him alone, but I do try to influence him a bit. I don’t want him to think he should go to UK just because I did. But I have told him with the type player he is, he would thrive at Kentucky. It’s the perfect opportunity for him. He loves it, too. It’s just a matter that he wants to take his time. As he gets closer to a decision, I will talk to him more.”
Hytchye said practicing against Keif and other Division I receivers LaSalle has produced “is what got me better” the last few years. “I go agains the best every day. Not every high school player gets to do that,” Hytchye said. “Derek catches the ball so well. He has real good body control and is great at catching the ball. He’ll be great in college.”
That’s why Hytchye has worked so hard to get Keif and others to Kentucky. He was the first player to verbally commit to UK after Stoops was hired. Hytchye — his father is Cuban and that’s where his name come froms — became a fan favorite on Twitter (his screen name is @TheRealLeel_9). He’s ranked as one of the nation’s top 50 cornerbacks by some recruiting services and has run the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds. He had scholarship offers from Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Purdue, and Vanderbilt as well others.
“I feel even better about Kentucky now than I did then,” Hytchye said. “It felt right for me and I wanted to be the first high school commit and be the one to get it rolling for the rest of the class. I know I have a shot to play and make early contributions. I have a lot of goals set in the SEC to make a name for myself on campus. I don’t think I could have made a better decision.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
New Kentucky football commit Jaleel Hytchye (6-0, 165) is ranked as the nation’s 50th-best cornerback prospect by Rivals.com. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds at an Ohio State camp. He had received scholarship offers from Tennessee, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, Purdue, and Vanderbilt as well other schools.
Previous UK coach Joker Phillips and his staff had recruited Hytchye and he “loved” the campus and “everything about the school” on his visits. However, he was not going to come to UK.
“I just didn’t get that winning vibe from the previous staff like the program was ready to compete in the SEC. With Stoops and (defensive coordinator D.J.) Eliot, I just feel that vibe,” Hytchye said. “Before, the football program just was not there. Now I get a feel from all the coaches that they don’t believe in losing. With those coaches and players and now recruits buying in, I think we can do something special and start a new tradition. Being part of tradition is a good thing, but starting traditions is even better.
“I am a fast guy, cover corner. Probably a little feisty. I definitely want more bulk. If I can do that, I can play a lot more physical, and that’s the way I want to play. I can cover a lot of ground. I like to hit and stop the run. I can’t put a big hit on now like I want to because I don’t have that much weight. The challenge for me is to put on weight and bring it even more when I hit somebody.”
Hytchye, who didn’t play cornerback until his freshman year at La Salle High School, sounds similar to another Ohio cornerback — Cody Quinn — who made significant contributions as a true freshman last season at Kentucky. He’s from Middletown, which is only about 30 miles from Cincinnati.
“I went to see him play once in high school and knew who he was. We’ve talked briefly,” Hytchye said. “I can see myself helping out as a freshman like him.”
Hytchye thought it was important to commit now rather than wait to take other official visits.
“We’ve got to get other guys on board. We need other guys to do something special at Kentucky,” the new commit said. “I am willing to buy in and do all I can to help make our class special. We could be the cornerstone class to get it done at Kentucky. We need to get as many good players on board and then we can do special things.”
He’s not sure if he will run track at UK, but he has that option. He’s run the 100-meter dash in 10.9 seconds, but he’s so versatile that he has also been timed in 1:55 for the 800-meter run. Seldom do sprinters try a distance event like that, and Hytchye admits running the 800 is not good for his football because the training causes him to drop weight.
“I do it all from sprints to the 800,” Hytchye said. “Kentucky coaches gave me the option to run track, and the track coaches were happy with that. I’m not sure what I will do. I am thinking about track and preparing for a big senior year. Depending on how that goes and then how my first UK season goes, then I will know whether to consider it.”
However, he knows playing football at Kentucky is going to be popular with family and friends.
“Everybody here is excited. A whole bunch of people at my dad’s job wanted me to pick Kentucky. They had a little party when I made my choice. We went out with some family and friends to celebrate,” he said. “This whole weekend has been great. I just know I made the right choice.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s not easy for any Kentucky football recruiting to overshadow basketball recruiting, especially when the basketball news involves the top-ranked center in the 2013 recruiting class.
Yet Cincinnati cornerback Jaleel Hytchye’s verbal commitment to new UK coach Mark Stoops over the weekend seemed to generate a bigger buzz among UK fans than center Dakari Johnson’s verbal commitment to coach John Calipari’s already dynamic 2013 recruiting haul.
“I was a little surprised at just how excited UK fans got,” said Hytchye. “I was not expecting that, but it is a blessing and I’ll go with that. It’s kind of fun.”
Fun? It was more than fun from him seeing the way Kentucky football fans reacted on various social media to Stoops’ first high school commitment. On Twitter, @TheRealLeel_9 (his screen name)started getting messages from UK fans as soon as he made his commitment public Saturday night.
Hytchye — his father is Cuban and that’s where his name come froms — spent a lot of time over the weekend seeing what he could do to help UK’s recruiting as well. He made a phone call to Franklin County receiver Ryan Timmons, who seems down to Ohio State and Kentucky, urging him to play at Kentucky. He planned sometime Sunday to reach out to junior college defensive tackle Ben Bradley, who visited UK Saturday and was at Auburn Sunday.
He says he “hit it off” with Florida cornerback Blake McClain, who has committed to UK, and immediately joined him in working on Asianti Woulard, McClain’s teammate and one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks who also started drawing attention from Florida last week.
“I watched Asianti and know he is a great quarterback,” Hytchye said. “Bradley, we need those defensive linemen. Anybody who can hit, I want on our team. I know a couple of guys from Ohio who are considering Kentucky, so I am going to hit them up.”
What did Timmons, who did not have any real interest in UK until after the coaching change, tell him?
“He is pretty much wrapping it up. I feel really good with where he is at with Kentucky, but that is his thing. I want him to come on board and I’m hoping he does. Me and him could be good friends and I know he is really a good player. But I don’t want to say too much about his recruiting. That’s for him to do,” Hytchye, who is ranked as a four-star player by some recruiting services, said.