UK football recruiting: Matt Elam postpones college decision

John Hardin High School football player Matt Elam. The 6-foot-5 defensive tackle announced Thursday that he will play for Kentucky.
John Hardin High School football player Matt Elam. The 6-foot-5 defensive tackle announced Thursday that he will play for Kentucky. Herald-Leader

It was all set up for the University of Kentucky football program to make a major splash on national television Saturday.

If everything went according to plan, the NBC cameras would pan to John Hardin defensive tackle Matt Elam, who would pick up a UK hat, leave an Alabama one on the table, and deliver possibly the biggest recruiting victory of Coach Mark Stoops' tenure.

Elam never made it to the podium.

The UK football target, — who had been planning for months to announce his college decision on this date — instead announced hours before the game that he would hold off until national signing day on Feb. 5.

A few minutes later, his coach explained why.

"Honestly, he's torn on the decision and he does not know what he wants to do," John Hardin Coach Chad Lewis told the Herald-Leader.

It was a surprise to many coaches, fans and analysts who had followed Elam's recruitment over the past few months, but his coach saw it coming.

Lewis said he spoke to Elam late last month and the Class of 2014 star still hadn't made up his mind. When Lewis landed in Texas for the All-American Bowl on Thursday, he met up with Elam again. That's when Elam first mentioned the possibility that he would not announce his decision Saturday.

The one thing Lewis — and ultimately Elam — didn't want is for an announcement to be made when there was still indecision.

"I said, 'Matt, if you don't know what you want to do, then you don't want to be committing to someone. You don't need to be one of these kids who ends up decommitting to a school because that's not where you actually wanted to go,'" Lewis said.

"I just told him to not worry about what the media says. Don't worry about what people think, because ultimately it's your decision and they're not walking in your shoes. You have to be where you're going to be happy for the next four years and not where somebody else wants you to be or thinks you're going to be happy."

Stoops and his coaching staff certainly would have preferred for Elam to announce that decision Saturday.

UK has already built a class that is ranked among the best in the country, and landing a player as highly touted as Elam — the nation's No. 9 senior, according to 247Sports — over a program as esteemed as Alabama would have been a recruiting coup.

"The biggest statement would be beating out Alabama for a recruit that they went after hard and highly coveted," said analyst Josh Helmholdt. "That would be a major statement for the Wildcats. You'd have to go back quite a while — from what I can think of — to find a recruit that picked Kentucky over Alabama."

Stoops and his staff are trying to turn around a program that has gone 2-10 in each of the past two seasons.

Alabama is a perennial national title contender that has enjoyed one of the best runs in college football history over the past few seasons under Coach Nick Saban.

Elam could stay at home and try to help a program that hasn't had a winning record in the Southeastern Conference since 1977, or he could leave the state to possibly compete for multiple national titles under one of the most decorated head coaches of all time.

"There's just an immense amount of pressure that he feels," Lewis said. "Stoops and Coach (Neal) Brown are really working hard on getting that program turned around, and you have to keep the best players in the state to get the program turned and going in the right direction. And Matt knows that and he's been told that by numerous people.

"And then, of course, all of Alabama's accolades speak for themselves. It's the same reason that people pick Kentucky basketball that are out of state. Why do you think those kids play for (John) Calipari? Because they feel like they're coming to play for the best program — year in and year out — in the country."

Elam took an official visit to UK last month but never got around to making one to Alabama. Though Elam hadn't scheduled a trip to Tuscaloosa as of Saturday morning, Lewis said he probably would do so before making his final decision.

Another player who stayed silent Saturday was four-star Ohio offensive lineman Marcelys Jones, who has been committed to Ohio State for more than a year but is still considering UK.

Jones watched as two high school teammates — four-star defensive backs Marshon Lattimore and Erick Smith — also committed to the Buckeyes. Smith left a Kentucky hat and three others on the table when he announced for OSU.

Jones, who took an official visit to Lexington last month, could still become a Wildcat. He signed financial-aid papers with both schools, which would allow him to enroll early at either Ohio State or UK. His original plan was to move to Columbus on Monday.

The only consolation for Stoops — and UK fans — on Saturday was the play of quarterback Drew Barker, who has already signed with the Wildcats and will arrive on campus next week as an early enrollee.

Barker was 4-for-6 passing for 54 yards and helped lead the West team to a 28-6 victory over the East. He completed his first four pass attempts — three for 15-plus yards — and led the West to its first two touchdowns.

His most impressive throw — a 21-yard strike down the middle of the field — set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Oklahoma-bound Joe Mixon on the next play. That score gave the West squad a 14-0 advantage going into halftime.

Barker will take part in spring practice with UK and is expected to compete for the starting quarterback job in a crowded field that already includes Jalen Whitlow, Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips.

Though Stoops didn't have any "Yahtzees" to celebrate Saturday, he did hit Twitter to congratulate his future QB.

"Congratulations Drew on the Win today," he tweeted. "You represented the #BBN well!!! See you in a week!!"

Valentine decommits

Travonte Valentine — the four-star defensive tackle who recently expressed interest in Kentucky — decommitted from Miami after Saturday's Army All-American Bowl.

Valentine told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he is reconsidering his commitment to the Hurricanes amid reports that Coach Al Golden could leave the program for Penn State.

The Hialeah, Fla., native said he would take official visits to UK and Louisiana State later this month before making a final decision on Feb. 5.