UK Football

As he changes his body, Kentucky's Elam is changing his life

Kentucky defensive lineman Matt Elam (69) slapped fans' hands after UK defeated South Carolina Oct. 4. UK is working with the freshman to break away from poor eating habits.
Kentucky defensive lineman Matt Elam (69) slapped fans' hands after UK defeated South Carolina Oct. 4. UK is working with the freshman to break away from poor eating habits. Herald-Leader

Being recruited is like eating a honey bun.

Sweet, gooey, easy, fun.

It was that way for Matt Elam.

The Kentucky freshman ate up that process, the same way he'd devour a honey bun, one of his favorite foods.

"Coaches come over and you eat together," the five-star defensive lineman recalled. "They tell you how great you are. That's the sweet stage. They'll tell you whatever you want to hear."

Coaches from across the country would sit across the table from Elam and tell him that the bonus weight on his 390-plus pound frame would fall right off once he started playing for their school.

Not Mark Stoops. The Kentucky coach told Elam he needed a plan and that nothing happens magically.

"He was like, 'Even if you come here or not, this is what you need to do to help yourself,'" Elam said.

The Stoops plan wasn't sophisticated sports science. It included diet and exercise — over the course of years, not months — and it included lots of extra work for Elam.

It wasn't as comforting as a honey bun, but Elam wondered if it might be more fulfilling.

But even after he signed with Kentucky and the plan to help him get more fit was sent to him, Elam balked.

"I was like, when I get there, I'll do the plan then," he said. "That kind of set me back a little bit."

He continued to eat the way he'd been eating.

Elam didn't love the breakfast or lunch options at John Hardin High School, so he'd snack during the day then head to the football field.

"Then right after practice, I'd stop at the McDonald's by my house and get like two McDoubles, two McChickens, a large fry and a sweet tea," Elam recounted. "Then I'd go home and probably eat something late."

Those poor habits caused Elam to balloon to 393 pounds, which is how much he weighed when he stepped on campus in June.

Goodbye, 'Get-by guy'?

Whether you're a Matt Elam, who needs to lose 50-plus pounds, or a rail thin wide receiver, who needs to add bulk to play in the Southeastern Conference, Kentucky's staff has a plan for you.

You have regular meetings with the strength and conditioning staff and with team dietitian Monica Fowler. You aren't thrown right into the weight room, you're eased in slowly.

"He's a project, but most of these kids are," UK's high-performance coach, Erik Korem, said of Elam. "When we see players, we see the end result, at least I do. I have in my mind: 'Here's where they are. What can we build?'"

The staff told Elam he needed to eat more to increase his metabolism.

Eat more? That made him smile.

Until they told him what he'd need to eat.

"I didn't like the food, all the vegetables and stuff," Elam said, scrunching his nose like a toddler at the dinner table with carrots and peas left on his plate.

He's still not a big fan of vegetables — Korem says it can take up to six months to develop a taste for something different — but Fowler started small by getting him to eat fruit.

Apples, bananas, grapes. He'd tell her that he was going to grab an apple juice instead and she'd shake her head, explaining that it's loaded with sugar.

Elam said goodbye to Sprite and Big Red, his two favorite sodas.

He admits it took him awhile to do it.

"If I go get some sodas here or there behind their back, it's just gonna hurt me," he finally reminded himself. "At the beginning, I'd go and be like, 'They don't know what they're talking about.'"

They forced water on him like he was a goldfish. He was swimming in it.

"Water has no taste, it's nasty," he would complain.

UK's staff asked him how anything with no taste could be nasty.

Elam laughed and chugged the water.

The bulk of the work that the 6-foot-7 lineman did to trim down to 360, his current weight, was done during the summer.

He worked out with the others, but also did extra cardio. He got quite familiar with the treadmill, both the underwater and regular kinds. He rode the exercise bike like it was going to take him to an exotic destination.

He walked everywhere — even when he wanted to crawl.

"I'd stay after when everyone would come in. I'd have to stay out extra with a couple of other players just to get right, to lose more, to do extra stuff," Elam said.

During the season, it's been about maintaining his weight. His body fat has dropped from 40 percent to 29 percent.

This offseason will be the time when Elam's body goes through the most dramatic changes. Coaches are hopeful that their nose guard will play one day at a comfortable 340 pounds.

But it won't happen quickly.

"It takes time," Korem said. "We did not want to microwave this situation. We all talked about that at the beginning. We wanted to take it slow because slow change is long-term change."

While alone on those treadmills and elliptical machines, Elam thought about other changes he might need to make in his life.

"I always made C's and D's," he said, "just didn't care that much."

His mom, Mamie Reed, used to joke with him starting early in first or second grade that he went to school just for lunchtime.

As his legs churned on the bike, he thought about the negative voices in his head.

"Growing up I had a lot of people, doubters, haters," Elam said. "A lot of teachers were like, 'You're just the get-by guy.'

"They'd say at the end, you're still going to be a 'get-by guy,' you're never going to amount to anything. I just took that and it motivated me."

The tight schedule of being a college athlete coupled with lots of help from UK's academic counselors has helped him become a better student.

"I want to study more now," he said. "Those good habits, I'm definitely proud of those now. And with CATS, they help me out a lot. I used to fight and fuss with them."

Elam admits he still fights the inner 'get-by guy' in nearly every facet of his life except on the football field, but that guy is getting quieter.

"He's taken personal ownership for certain things and he's going to get better at it and he's going to be great," Korem said. "He really has a big heart. He's kind of a big teddy bear. He's really a good guy that cares."

'An absolute terror'

Much like his adjustments off the field, Elam is a work in progress on it, too.

Nothing about his seven tackles — just one in the previous three games — screams future NFL Pro Bowl selection.

But Stoops said he's on the right track.

"I'm not disappointed at all," the head coach said. "He's going to be a very good football player. He's done some very good things this year, and there's been some times when he hasn't played as well. That's why he needs the experience and the work and all those things."

Elam is still learning the playbook and how to balance academics and social life with college football, defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.

As his playing weight drops and his stamina rises, Elam will get better and better.

"You've got to be relentless and those are the things I'm working on with him: every single snap, being physical and being tough," Brumbaugh said. "Everything from our defense starts with that guy in front, that nose guard, and when that guy plays well, the whole defense plays well."

The coaches and Korem have seen Elam on game tape and in the weight room doing plenty of things that make them hopeful about his future. Even as a freshman, he can take on two offensive linemen, anchor and hold point.

"He's a two-gapper from hell," Korem said. "He can take up a lot of space and he can move and shed real quick and there's just not many people who can do that."

When Elam first arrived on campus, the team was doing squats in the weight room. The bar had one plate on each side; the freshman told them to add two or three.

"And he's dropping all the way to the ground and we're like, 'Holy freaking cow. This guy is really powerful,'" the high-performance coach recalled.

"I don't even think he's realized what he can become yet and when he does, it's going to be real scary. It's going to be real scary."

It's a sweet vision for Elam, even sweeter than a honey bun.

"I envision an absolute terror on the defensive line," Korem said of Elam.

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