UK Recruiting

Cats, Tide lead chase for John Hardin tackle

Matt Elam has long been the No. 1 recruiting priority for Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops.
Matt Elam has long been the No. 1 recruiting priority for Kentucky football coach Mark Stoops. Photo provided

ELIZABETHTOWN — Matt Elam hears the question just about everywhere he goes.

Friends, family, his classmates at John Hardin High School and pretty much everyone else he encounters all want to know the same thing: "Where are you going to go to school?"

Elam — one of the top high school football players in the country — is used to the question by now. And he has a stock answer for those who ask.

"I always say 'John Hardin' ... and they just look at me like I'm a smart A," he said with a grin.

For the time being, that's the best Elam can do.

The 6-foot-6, 370-pound defensive tackle simply doesn't know the answer. He'll announce his college decision at the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio on Jan. 4. Until then, he'll have several of the country's top programs clamoring for his commitment.

"I didn't want to rush into things and then say, 'Oh no, I want to back out of this,'" Elam said. "When I make my commitment, I want to be fully in."

It's likely that one of the two teams playing in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday will get that commitment.

Kentucky and Alabama are the perceived favorites in Elam's recruitment. He acknowledged as much Wednesday in an interview with the Herald-Leader, adding that Notre Dame is also in his top tier of schools. He said Tennessee is making a "strong push" and Ohio State and Louisville are still in the mix.

Those are officially the six finalists, but most recruiting observers believe it will come down to the Cats and the Crimson Tide.

"That's the sense I've gotten," said analyst Woody Wommack. "I feel like he really likes Kentucky, and there's the home-state pull. But the chance to play for Nick Saban at Alabama is something that you can't just toss aside. I think that's something still kind of sticking around."

Both have their advantages.

UK is the in-state school with the energetic, new staff trying to turn around a program that has fallen to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference.

Elam — who will attend Saturday's game — said he communicates with offensive coordinator Neal Brown every day and speaks to Coach Mark Stoops about twice a week.

He's also formed a bond with UK's incoming recruits. He often talks to Conner quarterback Drew Barker, who seems to be recruiting Elam just as hard as the UK coaching staff. Elam mentioned several other UK commitments he keeps in regular contact with and said he enjoys seeing those guys when he comes to Lexington on recruiting visits.

"They're all really cool people," he said. "I like that probably the most about Kentucky. Just the relationships that they have. When I go to other places like Notre Dame or Ohio State, I don't have that feeling with the other recruits. And I have that at UK. So it makes me feel more comfortable."

Elam said he feels like "the president" when he visits Lexington, but when the emperor of college football wants you at his school, it's tough to say no.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban has made it clear that Elam is his No. 1 priority at the defensive tackle position. That's the same Nick Saban who has won four national championships and might have a fifth by the time Elam lands on a college campus.

"A lot of people say, 'You can't play at Alabama,' and stuff like that," Elam said. "He says, 'Don't let anybody say that you can't play here. ... Don't you want to play with the best?' And I say that I do want to play with the best, because I'm one of the best. He says, 'I believe that too.'

"It's just crazy. It's humbling hearing that from him, and it made me feel good about myself. That's just a great honor coming from him."

It was his performance at one of Saban's camps earlier this year that made Elam a national star. The event was closed to the media and recruiting analysts, but those who were there say Elam manhandled some of the top offensive linemen in the senior class.

Saban offered him a scholarship on the spot, and some of the nation's other top programs followed suit. His recruiting rankings soared — 247Sports now lists him as the No. 7 overall prospect in the Class of 2014 — and everyone took notice.

The lofty ranking has made him even more of a target for opponents this season. Every team he faces has a plan to stop him.

"His stats and numbers might not be what we expected going into the season," said John Hardin Coach Chad Lewis. "But, that being said, he's getting double- and triple-teamed quite a bit. ... And he hasn't complained about it. He knew — with all the notoriety he was getting — that he was probably going to get more (attention)."

The attention hasn't fazed Elam, on the field or off.

He answers questions with a smile, talks excitedly about his upcoming visits and tweets constantly about his conversations with college coaches and possible future teammates.

"It's been really neat," Lewis said. "It just doesn't seem to wear on him. Of course, he's big into the social media and the Twitter and all of that stuff.

"But he hasn't really talked about it that much to us during the season. He's trying to focus on John Hardin right now."

Elam travels to Notre Dame next weekend and said he'd probably visit Tennessee shortly thereafter. But he's saving his official visits to UK and Alabama for December — after the high school season. Then it'll be time for the big decision in January.

That'll be a bittersweet day.

"I'm looking forward to that moment," Elam said, before a slight pause. "But, then again, I'm not. Because I just don't want high school football to end."