Jason Hatcher tied his career high for tackles against Vanderbilt last week, but the stat sheet couldn’t include the part of the junior linebacker’s game that had his Kentucky coaches most pleased.
“I saw a side of him that I hadn’t seen in a long time, if ever, and that was the leadership, the inspiration, the really playing with that kind of passion and energy that you’d like to see everybody play with,” Coach Mark Stoops said of Hatcher.
The Cats coaches know what the 6-foot-3, 252-pound junior is capable of on the field: the tackles for loss, the speed and power to get to a quarterback.
But he’s had a hard time getting on the field to show them this season, first sitting out two games with a university mandated suspension and then playing a limited role most of the season thanks to a high ankle sprain.
“It's been hard for me to just sit and watch consistently,” said Hatcher, who had seven tackles, including two for a loss in the Vanderbilt loss on Saturday. “Once I got injured it wasn't just something I could bounce back from.”
For the first time in a long time Hatcher looked like the player his coaches and teammates have been expecting him to be all season.
“He was seeing blocks; he was getting off the ball; he was getting off blocks,” outside linebackers coach Andy Buh said. “He was making a lot of plays in critical situations. I haven't been around here a long time, but he put one together Saturday.”
When Hatcher made a big play, he was leaping into the air, firing up teammates.
His ability to become a leader on defense started to show.
“Jason is a good, not only player, but had a lot of energy,” defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. “He brought a lot of enthusiasm to the field. I expect him to continue to do that and bring that to every game.”
Hatcher was an instant jolt.
"Makes a big difference,” senior linebacker Josh Forrest said of having a healthy Hatcher back for the final two games of the season.
“Some of the young guys come in and make plays, some of the same plays, but Jason just brings us so much extra energy and knowledge because he's done it so long," Forrest continued.
He was seeing blocks; he was getting off the ball; he was getting off blocks. He was making a lot of plays in critical situations. I haven't been around here a long time, but he put one together Saturday.
Outside linebackers coach Andy Buh, talking about Jason Hatcher
When Hatcher was out there, the defense raised its play a notch or two, his coaches said. Having that kind of speed on the edge can only help a struggling UK defense that is last in the league in sacks (1.3 per game) and tackles for loss (four per game).
“Whether it’s pass rush or whether it’s setting the edge and making tackles for a loss, it definitely sets the mentality,” Eliot continued. “It also, gains enthusiasm. That’s something that we’re going to need to have and continue to build on.”
The Kentucky defense has a lot of senior leaders that are trying to get the Cats to a bowl game for the first time since 2010. It will take wins this week over Charlotte and then next week over Louisville in order to accomplish that feat.
Those seniors, starters like Forrest, Khalid Henderson, Ryan Flannigan, Farrington Huguenin and A.J. Stamps, will be gone next season and leadership will fall to players like Hatcher.
That seems to be hitting him as this junior season filled with ups and downs comes to a close.
It’s important for the team to close strong, he said.
“But what I think is even more important is for me to continue to establish myself as a leader among the team,” Hatcher said. “We got a lot of young guys out there and just kind of point those guys in the right direction."
Maybe Hatcher can’t change the outcome of the last five losses for Kentucky, but he does feel like he can help change the future by being a more vocal and emotional leader.
“We can have that type of emotion and passion on the field as a collective team I think we'll win a lot of games,” he said.
Herald-Leader columnist John Clay contributed to this report.