There is no perfect prescription for how to motivate Matt Elam.
Kentucky’s coaches have not completely figured out what buttons to push with their junior nose guard.
So they push all the buttons.
All the time.
“Just getting on him,” defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said of how he motivates the 6-foot-7, 360-pound player from Elizabethtown. “Getting on him. Every. Single. Day.”
It’s been a full-time job for the assistant coach since Elam arrived on campus in 2014, a four-star recruit by Rivals with all the potential in the world.
“People learn and mature at different ages,” Brumbaugh explained recently. “Some mature faster than others. We’re trying to teach him how to mature.”
That maturity has come in waves, first in Elam’s back-to-back semesters with a 3.0 grade-point average after an early aversion to doing work in the classroom.
“Little by little — you’re not going to change a person overnight; you’re not going to change a person who’s been doing something for 18 years — and then all the sudden he’s going to be different,” Brumbaugh continued.
It’s difficult to undo 18 years of less-than-perfect work habits and less-than-ideal eating habits that has Elam about 15 pounds heavier than coaches would like him to play at.
“You take a young guy who in high school, he got away and did this and did whatever he wanted to do to a certain extent, and there was nobody breathing down his throat,” Brumbaugh continued.
Elam admitted as much his freshman season at UK when he played in all 12 games and had 10 tackles, calling himself the “get-by guy” in high school.
The junior, who played in all 12 games last season and started the final four after friend and mentor Melvin Lewis broke his leg against Auburn, has not met with the media yet this spring.
Elam is one of the most underrated athletes, just because he moves so well at his size … He’s a strong dude and when he plays low, you’re not blocking him. No one is blocking him.
UK freshman center Drake Jackson
But he’s appears to be making steady progress. He’s starting to understand the impact he can have on the field as the Cats’ starter. Fans will get a chance to see just how much growth there’s been in the Blue-White game on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
When Elam is focused and working hard at his craft, he’s looked great in the spring.
True freshman center Drake Jackson sees it every day going against the first-team nose guard.
“Elam is one of the most underrated athletes, just because he moves so well at his size,” Jackson said. “I don’t know how much he weighs, but it’s up there. He’s a strong dude and when he plays low, you’re not blocking him. No one is blocking him.”
But the coaches have been non-committal about praising Elam because they know there’s still a lot left to do for the junior.
“He does some good things,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “Matt does some good things. He still has things he has to get better at.”
When asked about the central figure of his defense after a recent scrimmage, head coach Mark Stoops cautiously assessed: “I’ll have to watch the film. Sometimes at nose it doesn’t show up a heck of a whole lot until I watch the film, but overall I think, again, he’s getting more consistent.”
For now, slow and steady continues to be the pace for Elam, who finished last season with 23 tackles, but just three total in his final three games of the year.
“He can be as good as he wants to be,” Brumbaugh said of Elam in February. “He can be the best player in this league if he wants to be. It’s all up to him.”
The coach tasked with being the guy who gets on the “get-by guy” has seen what he hopes are some breakthroughs this spring.
“The last two weeks he’s really come around a lot more,” said Brumbaugh, noting that a better understanding of his role within this defensive scheme is helping Elam. “He’s really matured a lot more since last year. This summer’s gonna be big for him, and also fall camp. Now he’s got the confidence to get out there and be the guy.”
And being a full-time starter in the Southeastern Conference, will Elam be ready for that new job come September?
“He’ll be ready for it,” Brumbaugh said. “Each day he does something better each day. He’s a big man to motivate. To motivate a big man is a big job.”