Top quarterback puts the rush on coveted defensive tackle

mfields@herald-leader.comAugust 22, 2013 

In the natural order of football, defensive tackles put the rush on quarterbacks.

Matt Elam and Drew Barker have reversed those roles.

Elam, a 6-foot-6, 355-pound defensive tackle at John Hardin, is feeling the heat from Barker, Conner's standout quarterback.

Since Barker committed to Kentucky three months ago, he's been pitching the Cats to other prospects, and Elam has been a prime target.

"Drew's on the coaching staff for sure," Elam said with a laugh. "He's doing a great job helping bring in top recruits. He's after me hard. Texts. Phone calls. Whenever we see each other."

Elam has narrowed his choices to Alabama, UK, Louisville, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Tennessee. He says he has no idea where he'll end up, and he's in no hurry to make up his mind. He plans to announce his decision at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 4.

In the meantime, Barker will keep selling Elam on UK.

"Oh yeah, definitely," Barker said. "Matt's a top priority. He's a prototypical SEC defensive lineman. It's insane how athletic he is for how big he is.

"I'm not pressuring him. I'm just telling him he knows we're all good friends and that he won't find that closeness anywhere else. I'm doing it from a friendship angle."

On one day during the recruiting frenzy last spring, Barker received 115 hand-written cards and letters from the UK coaching staff.

Elam beat that. He got 182 cards and letters from UK one day this summer.

Barker didn't mind losing out to Elam in the mail mania: "I say send Matt as many letters as it takes to get him. We really want him and need him at Kentucky."

The affable Elam doesn't shy away from attention. He's a regular on radio shows, chats up recruiting analysts, and is active on his Twitter account. (Asked why he has "only" 6,000 Twitter followers compared to Barker's 12,000, Elam answers with a knowing smile: "He's a quarterback!")

UK offered Elam a scholarship last winter, and Alabama followed suit soon after.

"That's when it all exploded with his recruiting," John Hardin Coach Chad Lewis said. "It's been crazy since."

Elam said it was "very surreal" when Alabama offered. "I thought, OK, I can play at UK, with it being SEC football and everything. But Alabama? I was very surprised."

When Elam attended a Crimson Tide camp this summer, he caught the eye of Nick Saban.

"I was in a one-on-one drill against a dude who's one of the top three guards in the nation, and I just picked him up like a dump truck," Elam said. "I didn't mean to do that to the kid in front of Coach Saban. Then (Saban) tells me, ‘How am I supposed to recruit this kid if he gets tossed like that?'

"I said I was sorry."

Lewis, who was John Hardin's defensive coordinator before succeeding Mark Brown as head coach this year, said "when Matt wants to dominate, there's nobody in the state that can handle him. He can dominate a game on every play if he chooses, but he can't take plays off."

Elam admits he has to get in better shape to do that.

"I'm running to the ball every down, even when it's 40 yards downfield, and that's very tiring for a guy my size," he said.

Lewis said Elam's "great feet and great quickness are what set him apart."

And don't be fooled by Elam's quick smile and gregarious nature. "He's a nice guy," Lewis said, "but when the whistle blows he has a mean streak in him for sure."

Elam said he's "a very nice guy off the field, but on the field I have a whole different ego. I work too hard just to play around."

Elam and Barker exchange good-natured trash talk when they get together.

"I tell him, ‘If we ever play each other, I'm gonna sack you, Drew, and you're not gonna get up.'" Elam said. "And he tells me, ‘You can't catch me or touch me.'

"We have a good time with each other."

Barker, like Elam, has an outgoing personality. The 6-4, 215-pound senior embraces the role of star quarterback and high-profile recruit.

Conner Coach Dave Trosper said Barker is used to the spotlight and thrives in it.

Barker, who threw for 2,067 yards and 22 touchdowns and ran for 1,422 yards and 18 touchdowns last fall, said he's ready for the out-sized expectations this season.

"I don't feel any pressure," he said. "I feel better than ever. I feel faster, I feel quicker, I feel stronger, and I'm a more accurate passer.

"I'm a person who doesn't get rattled. I don't have a roller coaster of emotions. I stay calm no matter what's going on around me."

Barker and Elam both say team success trumps individual accolades, so they'd rather win a state championship than Mr. Football honors.

Conner and John Hardin are both rated as title contenders in Class 5A, and if their paths cross in the playoffs, it would be in the state finals in Bowling Green.

Barker considers that a dream scenario, just like he would love to have Elam as a UK teammate next season.

"Like I've told Matt, when UK was good a few years ago, the nucleus of the team was guys from in-state. Guys like me, him, (Jason) Hatcher, (Ryan) Timmons … all of us at UK together would be really big. We could be the core of something really special."

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