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UK head coach Mark Stoops has made his mark on the recruiting front, and his most important recruit right now is in-state defensive tackle Matt Elam.
Elam (John Hardin High School, Elizabethtown, Ky.) is a 6-foot-5-inch, 372-pound defensive lineman. He is the No. 9 overall player in the class of 2014, according to 24/7 Sports recruiting services, and he has announced two finalists for his college choice: UK and the University of Alabama.
Elam was scheduled to announce his decision on Jan. 4 during the Army High School All-American Bowl. But he postponed his decision until National Signing Day on Feb. 5, said his high school head coach, Chad Lewis.
What makes Elam one of the most intriguing football players in the history of Kentucky is how he could impact the dynamics of recruiting for Stoops. Keeping talent in-state has been a priority for Stoops and his staff.
In 2013, UK signed four-star defensive end Jason Hatcher, a Louisville native, three-star defensive tackle Jacob Hyde, who played for Clay County high school, and three-star Ryan Timmons, an athlete from Franklin County High School.
This year, UK has earned a commitment from Rivals’ No. 1 recruit from Kentucky, Drew Barker (Conner High, Hebron, Ky.). Adrian Middleton, a defensive tackle from Bowling Green, Ky., is also committed to UK.
“For UK to have the success they hope to have, they have to keep the best talent in the state,” Lewis said. “They compared Matt (Elam) to Tim Couch. They want him to stay home and be an in-state hero.”
Comparing Elam to Couch is high praise. Couch is arguably the most famous quarterback to ever play for UK.
He was drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 1999 NFL draft.
In 1998, Couch was a first team All-American and SEC Player of the Year. He holds the season record at UK for pass completions in a season and is third at UK in touchdown passes for a career, according to UK Athletics.
Lewis said Stoops has impressed Elam with his ability to recruit high-level talent at UK.
“Stoops has been outstanding to work with during this process,” Lewis said. “Matt has developed a relationship with him and everyone at UK. He’s intrigued by the fact that Stoops is a defensive coach and (D.J.) Eliot was a defensive line coach at (Florida State University). They’ve coached great players and had great history at Florida State.”
Because of Elam’s size and strength, he could be an immediate contributor to UK’s defense.
Iroquois High School (Louisville) head coach Mark Sander said that it was tough to gameplan against Elam.
“I saw other teams try to triple team block him and it did not work,” Sander said. “He is very tough to drive backward off the ball.”
Sander praised Elam’s ability to get to the quarterback, something that is tough to do for a defensive tackle his size.
Lewis said Elam could play early in college.
“He’s a guy coaches would like to get on the field as quickly as possible. His body will change once he gets into a better weight program.”
The big question is where Elam will decide to go and play college football. The UK coaching staff might compare him to Couch and his importance to the state, but another former in-state recruit took a different path.
Micah Johnson — the No. 1 recruit from Kentucky in 2006, according to Rivals — chose UK over Alabama, among other programs. He spent four years at UK and was first-team All-SEC in 2008. He went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft.
Elam won’t be following any one path.
Lewis said Elam has a massive decision ahead of him.
“This is such a big decision,” Lewis said. “Matt is a comical character, he has a great personality. Growing up with his teammates has been one of the most important things he’s had throughout his career.”
Recruiting outlets are torn on just how good Elam can be.
He’s highly ranked by 24/7 Sports, but is not ranked nationally by Rivals and is ranked outside of the ESPN top 300 recruits, though he is rated at four stars.
Lewis said Elam doesn’t get caught up in the ratings.
“The only thing that matters is how these coaches rate him,” Lewis said. “In their mind, he’s a top-level talent. They all say that the sky is the limit for Matt Elam. He may have the possibility of making it to the NFL, but he’s going to have to work. In my mind, he’s one of the best defensive tackles in the country.”