LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky’s Jason Hatcher hasn’t taken long to become part of Kentucky’s defense and the freshman has worked himself into the rotation at two positions.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder from Louisville has lined up at end and outside linebacker in a 3-4 formation for the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 Southeastern Conference). Hatcher has been able to post multiple-tackle games and has 11 total stops, forcing Kentucky coaches to figure out how to get him more playing time for Saturday night’s game at No. 13 South Carolina (3-1, 1-1).
Hatcher has seen action against consecutive ranked teams with strong offenses and a third challenge awaits against the Gamecocks, who feature running back Mike Davis and possibly quarterback Connor Shaw if he fully recovers from a right shoulder injury.
Hatcher can’t wait to show what he has learned against one of the SEC’s best offenses.
“I’ve gotten better with the snaps I’m able to get and I’m just trying to keep improving,” Hatcher said. “Obviously, South Carolina is a good team. … but we (the defensive line) want to go out and just try to stop the basic stuff. We feel like if we are able to stop their run plays, we’ll have an opportunity. A chance.”
Coaches aren’t surprised Hatcher has created opportunities for himself, considering he was projected to make an impact with the Wildcats. A top-10 recruit at Trinity High School who recorded 13.5 sacks as a senior, he was recruited by Alabama and Notre Dame and had committed to USC before changing his mind and deciding to play for defense-minded Kentucky rookie coach Mark Stoops.
Though USC’s 3-2 record is better than Kentucky, embattled coach Lane Kiffin was fired on Sunday after the Trojans’ 62-41 loss to Arizona State. Hatcher had heard whispers about the drama and believes he made the right choice staying home to play for the Wildcats.
“It was a lot of turmoil and negative talk going on during my recruiting process, but I tried to stay out of it,” Hatcher said. “I picked (Kentucky) because of some other reasons but I’m glad I did.”
One could have been the prospect of quality playing time for the Wildcats.
Kentucky mostly showed a traditional 4-3 front the first two games with Hatcher playing sporadically at end. Then came the surprising switch to a 3-4 look against Louisville with him at outside linebacker, a position he had never played against an opponent.
Kentucky lost 27-13 to the No. 7 Cardinals but Hatcher played extensively, showing hints of being the playmaker the young Wildcats need.
”Jason brings a lot to the package,” Kentucky defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said. “(Playing Hatcher at outside linebacker) allows us to get five of our big guys on the field. It also allows us to get some more speed on the field and more athleticism.”
Hatcher said he has worked to improve at reading offenses and blocking schemes and will need to attack both at a high level if Kentucky expects to compete against South Carolina. The Gamecocks present one of the toughest challenges the Wildcats defense will face all season; Davis has rushed for 508 yards and 6 touchdowns while Shaw has completed nearly 65% of his passes for 665 yards and 6 scores.
Given that power threat and Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s desire to see more of what Hatcher can do, expect him to be pretty busy on Saturday night.
“If he keeps playing well,” Eliot said, “I want to find a way to get him on the field.”