It’s rare that a backup nose guard who managed just nine tackles in 11 games last season becomes the focal point of Media Day.
But that’s the position that senior Matt Elam found himself in on Sunday as the Cats started preseason training camp.
Elam became the center of attention after a series of rants by SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy, who singled out the senior as an underachiever on a defensive line that underachieved last season.
“This was an embarrassing effort last year, particularly the former five-star, Matt Elam, who’s lazy and as underachieving a player as I’ve seen in this league in a long time,” McElroy said.
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Coaches and teammates at Southeastern Conference Media Days jumped to Elam’s defense, but Sunday afternoon was his first chance to discuss the scathing critique.
“Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion,” the 6-foot-7, 360-pounder said of McElroy, a former Alabama quarterback turned analyst. “He’s a guy behind a desk. That’s what he’s paid to do. … I’m just working hard to change that view.”
That extra work has included trying to do more when others aren’t watching, Elam said.
“I’ve been really killing myself to get to the level that I want to be at,” said Elam, who has 42 career tackles in 36 games played. Last season, he fell behind junior college transfer Naquez Pringle on the depth chart and didn’t play in the bowl game.
“I’m working hard for my senior year, me and my teammates and I heard the comment,” he continued. “I’m just working hard to change that view.”
Stoops defended his senior as well.
“We all want to do a better job every day,” Stoops said. “Matt’s no different and he has worked hard and I think that losing some weight and getting in great shape is a big piece of that. He’s working at it right now.”
After that bowl game, UK tight ends coach Vince Marrow pulled Elam aside and talked to him about some of the big-time defensive tackles he’d played with like Ted Washington.
Marrow told Elam to embrace his final opportunity to prove naysayers wrong and represent his state.
“The good lord has blessed you,” Marrow said he told Elam.
“What people don’t realize is that Matt Elam is a very athletic guy,” Marrow told the media on Sunday. “Very powerful guy. I said, ‘Look, when the NFL comes here, they’re not looking at what you did last year or the year before. They’re looking at your senior year. So it’s up to you who you want to be.”
Marrow believes fans will see a more motivated Elam for this final season in Kentucky blue.
“I’ll go on record: He’s going to be a different guy, and it’s going to be very exciting to watch,” Marrow said. “Because when you watch a 6-6, 300-plus, whatever he is, move like that, it’s going to be a good thing to watch. I really love Matt Elam. Love him.”
Bowden watch continues
The only Kentucky Wildcat that isn’t in town for the start of fall training camp is arguably the one that UK fans are most excited to see on the field this season.
Lynn Bowden — the top recruit in the Wildcats’ class of 2017 — isn’t on campus yet, Mark Stoops said Sunday, but the UK coach said he is expected to be in Lexington later this week.
Marrow, the program’s recruiting guru and the primary recruiter on Bowden, also didn’t show any concern about the star prospect’s future with the team during an interview with the Herald-Leader on Sunday afternoon.
“Like Coach Stoops said, he’ll be here,” Marrow said. “He never said he’d be here today.”
Stoops acknowledged at the beginning of UK’s media day Sunday that Bowden’s absence was due to “academic eligibility” and implied that he has not yet been approved by the NCAA clearinghouse.
Marrow said the same.
“He’s just finishing up a (summer) course, the last part of it, and it just so happens that it doesn’t fall into the time where this was starting,” he told the Herald-Leader. “But he’ll be here. He’ll be here.”
Bowden — a 6-foot-1, 190-pound prospect from Youngstown, Ohio — was the jewel of the Cats’ 2017 recruiting class and is expected to be a major contributor to UK’s offense this season. He’s listed as a wide receiver but is also capable of playing running back and the Wildcat quarterback position.
Marrow said Sunday that Bowden should be able to help “immediately” as a kickoff and punt returner. The shifty, dynamic runner is hard to handle in the open field, and it’s that ability that has UK fans — and coaches — excited about what he can bring to the team’s offense this season.
Bowden was ranked by ESPN and Scout.com as one of the country’s top 100 recruits for the 2017 class. He was the runner-up for Mr. Football honors in Ohio last fall, running for 2,277 yards and passing for 1,366 yards. He accounted for 57 total touchdowns as a senior.
“I’m not going to be shocked if he does some of the things that the fans think he’s going to do, because that’s basically who he is,” Marrow said. “Just let him get here and then the rest will take care of itself.”
Roster, personnel updates
Kentucky will begin fall camp at nearly full strength, Stoops reported on Sunday.
“We have a few guys that we got to be careful with some reps early, that are nursing a few injuries from the training that they have done this summer,” Stoops said. “But in general we’re 100 percent healthy.”
He mentioned Tobias Gilliam and Jamin Davis (ankle sprains) as two players who would miss the first day of training camp.
▪ Although Bowden wasn’t on campus for the start of fall camp, another late arriving Cat has been cleared in Michael Nesbitt, a three-star defensive back from Fort Lauderdale.
Also on campus are punter Matt Panton, a graduate transfer from Australia by way of Columbia University as well as Southern California transfer E.J. Price, who will sit out this season.
“He’s a very, very talented football player,” Stoops said of Price. “Great kid. … I really like what I heard from him and what I’ve seen from him, what he’s done. I’m very excited to have him on this team.”
▪ Defensive tackle Tymere Dubose sat out spring practices this year while working through some academic issues, Stoops said.
“That was a decision that I made to remove him from the team for the spring because he needed to get focused, and he needed to put all of his attention on academics; I’m proud to say that he did that,” Stoops said of the 6-foot-5, 320-pound junior from Youngstown.
“Hopefully, he’ll mature in all areas of his life and come out here and have a good camp and get back out there on the field.”
▪ Cornerback Kendall Randolph, who missed the spring after having surgery, is working his way back to full strength and will resume his role at nickel back, but that’s a position that others could see time at as well.
“We also can explore with playing Mike Edwards at nickel, because he’s such a play maker and he has such good instincts and that position can get a lot of action,” Stoops said of the junior safety. “So he likes it, he wants to play some there.
“I would like to be able to do that, it depends on how well we can play behind him. I know he can do it, I just, we just have to have a strong safety play at or near the level he can in that nickel situation to move him around.”
It’s also a spot where cornerback Jordan Griffin could see some time at as well. There’s some versatility in those spots, said Stoops, who helps coach the defensive backs.
Cats land new commitment on Media Day
Class of 2018 running back Chris Rodriguez announced Sunday morning that he has committed to the University of Kentucky.
Rodriguez — a 6-foot, 200-pound prospect from McDonough, Ga. — picked up an offer from the Wildcats in May and visited Lexington earlier this summer. He’s considered a three-star player and is the first running back from the class of 2018 to commit to UK.
He also had reported scholarship offers from Mississippi and Mississippi State.
UK now has 16 commitments for the 2018 class.