Signing day notes: New UK staff puts emphasis on keeping top talent in state

jsmith3@herald-leader.commstory@herald-leader.comFebruary 6, 2013 

For a few days in early December, D.J. Eliot was a man on a Bluegrass island.

He was the only staff member that new Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops had hired.

Eliot had barely been on UK's campus before he set out on a quest west to convince two of the state's top seniors — defensive end Jason Hatcher and multi-purpose athlete Ryan Timmons — that they should stay home and play for Kentucky.

The first stop for Eliot that day was Franklin County to see Timmons.

Then he drove toward Louisville to try and convince Jason Hatcher that Kentucky, not Southern California, was the place for him.

"For us to be successful, we've got to make sure that those great players within the state stay," Eliot said on Wednesday.

Stoops, Eliot and eventually the other staff members who would join them had that success.

Timmons and Hatcher both decided to spurn big-name, more successful programs and stay home.

The Flyers standout made his commitment official on Tuesday and Hatcher followed suit on Wednesday.

"It shows they see the potential within their own state," Eliot said. "And what I found by recruiting Jason Hatcher was he wanted to come to Kentucky. He just wanted to believe in the program. We were able to convince him of what we're going to do."

And what Kentucky got in Timmons, Hatcher and in retaining the commitment of Clay County defensive lineman Jacob Hyde were players who want to play for the name across their chest.

"Signing with Kentucky means more to me than just another football player signing a scholarship," Hyde said this week. "This is a chance to represent my state and play for the school I've always followed."

Sure, Stoops likes that Hyde is a "big, strong guy."

In Hatcher, Stoops and staff got an important player who gives the class instant credibility.

"With Jason, you know, what makes him so dynamic is how explosive he is," Stoops said. "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."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said the staff was huddled around watching the Timmons announcement the day before.

"I thought it was huge for us," he said. "That was a great day for us yesterday. ... He really showed in-state recruits in classes to come to have faith in us."

Brown looking for some offensive oomph

In Kentucky's class of 22, it got 12 offensive players, including seven skill-position players, which was an emphasis, the coaches said.

So what was Brown looking for when he assembled his class?

"The first thing we looked at was the ability to make people miss," Brown said. "That was the No. 1 key."

What the offensive coordinator got was even more.

"I think a lot of those guys can take it the distance when they get it," he said. "And you've gotta have that in this league. You're going to have a hard time sustaining 12- and 14-play drives in this league. You've gotta have some guys that can make some people miss."

Included in that group are four wide receivers in Jeff Badet, Javess Blue, Alex Montgomery and Timmons, and two running backs in JoJo Kemp and Khalid Thomas.

Already looking ahead to the class of 2014

Maybe Kentucky's coaches would like to prop their feet up on their not even unpacked desks and pop open some champagne bottles to celebrate the top class in program history, but there's no time for that, Stoops said.

"We've been on the phone this morning talking to the top prospects in the ' 14 class, and we have been evaluating the ' 14 class for a week or so," Stoops said.

'Childhood dream' for Clay County's Hyde

Of all the recruits in Kentucky's 2013 signing class, none have been with the Cats as long as Jacob Hyde. The 6-foot-2, 313-pound defense tackle from Clay County committed to the old Kentucky staff of Joker Phillips last March 1.

But in a sense, Hyde has been with the Wildcats even longer than that.

"My family has always been UK fans," Hyde said. "For me to go to Kentucky and play, it's a childhood dream."

After Phillips and his staff were fired, Hyde acknowledges some anxious moments. Two days after Mark Stoops got the UK head coaching job, he called Hyde to let him know his scholarship offer was still good.

"It was great. It really amazed me that he called me after two days. It was such a relief to me," Hyde said. "Kentucky is where I always wanted to play and I did not want to have to open my recruiting back up."

Hyde said UK coaches have told him he will start out getting a chance to play defensive line.

Clay County Coach Evan Napier says Hyde will need to improve on technique in adapting to life in the Southeastern Conference.

"He's a raw kid," Napier said. "He's got raw strength, which is something you can't teach. And he's got great foot speed for a kid his size, which is something else you can't teach. He can be a good one."

Hytchye wants to make mark in freshman year

Jaleel Hytchye from La Salle High School in Cincinnati, the first high school player to commit to play for Kentucky after Stoops was named head coach, is a remarkably versatile athlete.

In track, Hytchye recently set his high school's all-time record in the 55-meter dash. As a sophomore, he played a key role in a state championship effort for La Salle by running a leg in the 4-by-800 relay.

"We had a chance, we felt, to win the state title and the coach was in a real tough spot whether to pull a senior out of the (4-by-800) relay and go with Jaleel, a sophomore," said La Salle Athletics Director Dan Flynn. "He went with Jaleel, and he came through in a big way. And we won the state championship."

It is rare for an athlete to be versatile enough to excel both as a sprinter and a middle distance runner.

As a football player, the 5-foot-11, 167-pound Hytchye says his big goal before next season at UK is to put on weight without losing speed.

"I'd like to get up to around 180," Hytchye said.

On his recruiting visit to UK, Hytchye's official host was another cornerback from Ohio, Cody Quinn. Last season, Quinn played well for Kentucky as a true freshman.

Said Hytchye: "I want to try to do exactly what he did. Get a chance to play, and make something out of it."

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