On Jan. 5, Jaleel Hytchye secured a place in University of Kentucky sports history by becoming the first high school football player to commit to play for new Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops.
In Hytchye (pronounced HI-chee), UK knew it was getting a well-regarded cornerback (rated four stars by ESPN) from an area, Cincinnati, that has often proven a vexing recruiting puzzle for Kentucky to solve.
What Stoops and Co. could not have known is that the Cats also secured a social-media dynamo who would go into overdrive trying to persuade other top prospects to join him at UK.
"After I committed, it only makes sense for me to try to do everything I can to get as many good players to join me as I can," Hytchye said last week. "I'm like Coach Stoops," getting Kentucky to win.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday's college football national signing day, Hytchye has emerged as the Twitter pied piper for Kentucky Wildcats football.
If you are among the 4,757 who follow @TheRealLeel_9, you would have seen Hytchye implore four-star Youngstown, Ohio, safety Marshall McWilson "to make what we talked about happen" and choose UK. Eventually, McWilson decommitted from Nebraska and did just that.
Hytchye appealed to Trinity defensive end and Southern California commitment Jason Hatcher "to come ball out in the SEC right next to home bro!"
The Cincinnati product asked Dayton, Ohio, linebacker Darrien Howard, a West Virginia pledge, to direct-message him his phone number. "Hear me out about UK bro," Hytchye tweeted at Howard.
At Cincinnati's La Salle High School, where Hytchye is both a football and a track star, they are not shocked at the role the cornerback has assumed in spreading the word about UK.
"He's a very charismatic kid," said La Salle athletics director Dan Flynn. "And Jaleel's a leader."
Interestingly, the guy doing so much to sell Stoops' vision of a "New Kentucky" had taken a long look at "Old Kentucky" during what turned out to be the final year of the Joker Phillips coaching regime.
Hychye had decided to pass on that Kentucky.
Last spring, Hytchye came to UK's Junior Day (a recruiting event for high school juniors). He came to last season's UK loss to Western Kentucky on an unofficial visit.
"I liked the campus, I liked the players. I didn't like the atmosphere I felt around the program," Hytchye says of UK football in 2012. "I mean, I thought it was a good family atmosphere, but it did not feel like a winning atmosphere. I'd been to camps at Ohio State, Michigan State, and I knew what that commitment to excellence felt like. I just wasn't feeling that (at UK)."
The 5-foot-11, 167-pound corner, who last weekend broke La Salle's 55-meter dash record (running in 6.59 seconds), says he fielded offers from Pittsburgh, Louisville, Arizona State, Tennessee and Cincinnati, among others.
Then Stoops and his fellow former Florida State assistant, D.J. Eliot, the new Cats defensive coordinator, came in to make a new pitch for UK.
"When they first started recruiting me, Coach Stoops and Coach Eliot were the only coaches Kentucky had," Hytchye said. "Even my parents were saying maybe I should wait until they hired my position coach before getting serious (about Kentucky). But I liked what they had to say about their defenses at Florida State."
The argument that Stoops and Co. made to convince Hytchye that they can turn Kentucky football into a consistent winner in the brutal Southeastern Conference took full form after ex-Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown was hired to run the UK offense. Brown, a former UK wide receiver from the Hal Mumme era, eventually brought at least two former Red Raiders assistants to work for him.
"What (Kentucky) sold me, they were hiring Texas Tech's offensive coaches to run the offense," Hytchye says. "Basically, they said Texas Tech usually had one of the best offenses in the country, they just couldn't build a defense (of the same level).
"Then Coach Stoops and Coach Eliot said Florida State's defense was, like No. 109 in the country (actually 108) when they got there. In three years, they built it up to where it was No. 2 in the country. So you take the coaches who had Texas Tech's offense and Florida State's defense and put them together, you can build a (winning) team at Kentucky."
That pitch was convincing enough to get Hytchye to pledge to play his college football at UK. And the guy whose post-football goal is to work as a broadcaster at ESPN has since taken upon himself to make that pitch to other prospects.
Hytchye does not back down when his pro-Kentucky football sales pitch is disputed.
When he told his University of Louisville recruiter (whom he declined to name) that he was committing to UK, Hytchye says, the Cardinals coach challenged the decision.
"He said (Louisville) wins championships and Kentucky doesn't," Hytchye said. "I said 'We can win championships at Kentucky.' He said (Louisville) just beat Florida (in the Sugar Bowl) and Kentucky never beats Florida (no UK wins over the Gators since 1986). I said, 'We can beat Florida at Kentucky.'"
Finally, Hytchye says, the U of L coach told him if he went to UK, "You need to remember, you'll have to play us.'"
Jaleel Hytchye, Kentucky football's five-star salesman, says he had a ready answer.
"I just told him," Hytchye says, "that I'm looking forward to it."
Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: Markstory.bloginky.com.