LOUISVILLE — As the 6-foot-2, 250-pound, four-star defensive end stood in his white pants, beige vest, blue tie and blue hat, the question was popped.
Three months, six months ago, could you, Jason Hatcher, the Trinity High School star who for so long was committed to play football at national powerhouse Southern Cal, have envisioned standing here wearing a blue UK hat having just signed with Kentucky.
"No, I couldn't," Hatcher said matter-of-factly. "No, I couldn't."
"What changed?" Hatcher said. "The coaching staff changed."
It wasn't just that. It wasn't just that one coaching staff gave way to another at Kentucky. That has happened before, plenty of times.
It was that the coaching staff changed to this coaching staff, with a head coach in Mark Stoops who had built a great defense at Florida State, with a defensive coordinator in D.J. Eliot, who had coached defensive ends who had gone high in the NFL Draft and one (Bjoern Werner) who this spring might even be the No. 1 overall pick.
That was part of why Kentucky flipped the heralded Hatcher from his long-standing commitment to be a Trojan in favor of signing with a program that was 2-10 last season.
But there also was this:
"They came in and they were not afraid to talk to him," Trinity Coach Bob Beatty said. "They said, 'I want to talk to you. This is what we're offering.' They were real upbeat about it. There was no ducking your head, or being embarrassed, or saying, 'Well, you know, we probably won't get him.'"
Instead, there was plenty of this: A young, energetic — "dynamic" was Beatty's description — staff that capitalized on the momentum of Stoops' reputation at FSU, his smart staff hires and the excitement of an energized fan base and that produced, at least on paper, a far better first signing class, and talent upgrade, than almost any expert could have envisioned.
Hatcher's was the breakthrough signature in all that. After all, he was an in-state stud player who had committed to an out-of-state stud power. On top of that, he hailed from a dominant prep program whose recruiting code previous Kentucky staffs had been unable to crack.
Surely a college coming off three consecutive losing seasons, one that has had serious struggles competing in the toughest football conference in the country, couldn't steal away a major recruit headed to an iconic football program.
Look back to two years ago, when Kentucky was coming off a string of five straight bowl games and still could not talk star Boyle County linebacker Lamar Dawson out of turning down USC in favor of a Bluegrass bunk close to home.
But change has come.
"Coach Eliot was very persistent throughout the whole process," Hatcher said, grinning. "That's the one word I'm going to use."
It was just Eliot. At times, Hatcher said, there were as many as five UK coaches — Stoops, Eliot, defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, defensive backs coach Derrick Ansley and offensive coordinator Neal Brown — on school grounds to talk to the defensive end.
"When I de-committed, Southern Cal brought five coaches here, too," Hatcher said.
In the end, however, USC couldn't get it done. Stoops sold Hatcher on his staff and their vision of what they can do in Lexington, especially on the defensive side of the football.
What has the staff told him about next season?
"We're going to win a bowl game," Hatcher said. "And then the year after that, we're going to be competing for an SEC title."
You believe that?
"Yes, I believe that," Hatcher said.
Why do you believe that?
"Because," said the kid in the blue UK hat, "Kentucky (won't) be 108th in defense like last year."
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: Johnclay.bloginky.com.