UK coaches find more options as freshman Hatcher proves quick study

jsmith3@herald-leader.comSeptember 24, 2013 

  • Tennessee at Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30

    TV: ESPNU

    Records: Kentucky 2-9 (0-7 SEC); Tennessee 4-7 (1-6)

Why go with just two pass rushers when you can rush three?

That was the Kentucky defensive staff's thinking anyway.

Sure, it was nice having defensive ends Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Za'Darius Smith each going after a quarterback, but it wasn't too far into camp that UK coaches realized they wanted to find a way to get true freshman Jason Hatcher onto the field as well.

The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder from Louisville started the season behind Dupree in several packages, but eventually showed the coaches enough that they wanted to try to turn the twosome into a gruesome threesome.

"He plays physical, he plays with a passion," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said of Hatcher, who served as a sort of pass rushing linebacker as well working at his usual defensive end spot against Louisville.

The new defensive formation threw the Cardinals for a loop, especially in the first half, when they started the game with four straight three-and-outs.

"We were pretty much surprised," running back Dominique Brown said after the game. "They had five down lineman the whole game and we weren't expecting that."

Hatcher, who has had at least one tackle in each game this season, had a season-best four stops against Louisville.

The former Trinity star, ranked the eighth-best defensive end in the country by Rivals.com, could see his role expand even more this week when Kentucky faces No. 20 Florida and quarterback Tyler Murphy.

It will be the junior quarterback's first career start and it will be on the road in the Southeastern Conference. He subbed in for Jeff Driskel after the starter broke his leg against Tennessee on Saturday.

Don't be surprised to see UK throw some surprises like that alignment at Murphy, especially early.

"We need to continue to build ... and do some different things," UK Coach Mark Stoops said. "We have a lot of respect for them. They're a good, well-coached team. Very physical team. And so we're always trying to be creative and find new ways to mix it up."

Coaches had this creation in mind when they were recruiting Hatcher away from Southern California near the end of his senior season, in which he had 37 tackles, 13.5 quarterback sacks and four other tackles for loss.

But learning to stand up after playing four years of high school as a true defensive end was a challenge for Hatcher, as it is for any player, Dupree said.

"Jason never stood up before, so I had to just show him techniques about standing up," Dupree said. "I pretty much had to show him a lot of things, how to read the tackle when he was standing up because it's different from being down, and how to read pass and run. I just taught him a little bit of the key things that you need to know."

Hatcher said his biggest adjustments have been keeping up with the speed of slot receivers and tracking down running backs in the middle of the field.

But his coaches have been impressed with how quick of a study Hatcher has been.

"I thought for as much as he had and what he had to do, he handled it well," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. "There are things he can get better at. It was his first time in a live ball game being able to do that, but he listens and he wants to be good. And any time you've got a guy who wants to be good, you've got an opportunity and the sky's the limit."

Dupree, who has had his share of position switching in his three seasons at UK, agreed.

"Jason learns pretty fast to be young," Dupree said. "He's very physical at times. He just loves the game and wants to be on the field."

Most of the adjustment to a new position has been mental, Hatcher said.

"You mess up, but you can't let that keep you down," he said. "I've gotta just keep going and keep going, because I'm going to mess up a lot, but the coaches are supporting me."

Hatcher has seen plenty on tape that he needs to work on and coaches have been more than happy to point those things out.

The tape has shown him something else, too.

"We have tremendous confidence, because (the Louisville game) just showed us and opened up the door to what we can do and what we can be as a defense," Hatcher said last week. "So everybody took a lot in their own way from film, but as a team (we saw) what we can do and how dominant we can be."

Defensive tackle Donte Rumph is practicing this week and said his injured shoulder is fine. He said the injury was not to his left shoulder, which he had surgically repaired this off-season.


Saturday

No. 20 Florida at Kentucky

When: 7 p.m.

Records: Florida 2-1 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 1-2 (0-0)

TV: ESPNU

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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