John Clay

With the pressure on, Matt Elam is looking for the pot-of-gold payoff

Matt Elam is not hitting the snooze button

Kentucky junior Matt Elam on the grind of training camp.
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Kentucky junior Matt Elam on the grind of training camp.

Here we go again. Sometime in the next few days it’s expected big, bad Bama, i.e. the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide, will claim a commitment from Kentucky’s best high school football prospect, this time poaching Lafayette offensive tackle Jedrick Wills.

It would make the second time in three years Nick Saban has beaten out Mark Stoops and company for the cream of the commonwealth crop, building off the signing of Madison Southern running back Damien Harris in 2015.

Not that Saban has always had his way inside the Bluegrass border, mind you. Back in 2014, despite a last-minute surge of attempted Saban persuasion, Matt Elam, the five-star defensive lineman out of John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown, turned down the Tide to join Stoops’ troops.

Now, two years later, it’s the big man’s big moment. With Melvin Lewis graduated, Elam is the main man at the starting nose guard spot. And with the unexpected departure of defensive tackle Regie Meant, Elam needs to be the all-important anchor on coordinator D.J. Eliot’s defensive front.

Of course, according to federal requirements (not really), you can’t write a Matt Elam story without mentioning weight. Last season, he reported at 380 pounds. This year, he arrived at 350. He hopes to weigh 340 by the opener Sept. 3.

“It’s the same question every day so it’s going to get tiring,” Elam said Wednesday. “It gets old, but I answer it every time.”

Truth be told, more important questions need answering. How is Elam’s camp going? Good, but it could always be better. In complimenting the play of defensive tackle Courtney Miggins, Eliot said Wednesday the rest of the line needed to improve.

This is the second full week of camp — “All the places that I know that I have, it’s hurting,” Elam joked — the part affectionately known as “the grind,” something players have to fight through.

“The first thing starts with the alarm,” Elam said. “When you’re out of here at 9:30-10:30 at night and you’ve got an alarm at five or six in the morning, you know what I mean? A lot of people press that snooze, but I’m like I got to get up. I don’t get up, I’m just going to lay in the bed.”

The bed won’t get Elam where he wants to go. Ultimately, that’s the NFL. He has the size and talent. He needs the production. Had he chosen Alabama, Elam may well have redshirted in 2014. At UK, he played all 12 games as a backup, registering 10 tackles. He played in all 12 games last season and started four after Lewis suffered a torn ACL.

What he does and what we ask him to do, he’s not always going to be that guy behind the line of scrimmage (making) those flashy plays.

UK head coach Mark Stoops on Matt Elam

Elam ended up with 23 tackles, including a half tackle for a loss. Given his position, however, Elam’s stats aren’t likely to pop. In the scheme of things, his job is to occupy real estate so teammates (linebackers, tackles and ends) can get the glory.

“He’s a guy that’s very good over the center in a zero technique which we play quite a bit of,” said Stoops on Media Day. “What he does and what we ask him to do, he’s not always going to be that guy behind the line of scrimmage (making) those flashy plays.”

Still, you’d have to think that without Meant, the pressure is on Elam to meet expectations.

“Not really because we’ve got a lot of guys that can fill in for him,” Elam said. “Regie was definitely a great player and I definitely will miss him, but we have a lot of guys that were following in his footsteps that hopefully can take on that role.”

Besides, entering his third year of college football, Elam mostly wants it for himself. He’s put in too much work, lost too much weight, made too many sacrifices not to have some sort of payoff.

“You definitely look for the pot-of-gold-at-the-end-of-the-rainbow-type thing,” Elam said, adding that for him the NFL is just part of the payoff. “I just want to do what I know I can do.”

Kentucky’s top 10 returning tacklers

Player

Solo

Assists

Total

Marcus McWilson

32

34

66

Denzil Ware

22

17

39

Mike Edwards

25

14

39

Chris Westry

23

13

36

Regie Meant

14

17

31

Blake McClain

19

12

31

J.D. Harmon

13

15

28

Matt Elam

10

13

23

Derrick Baity

14

5

19

Darius West

12

5

17

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