Elam commitment symbolic of change

Although there have been inklings of it here and there over the past calendar year, it was never more evident than Thursday, when Elizabethtown (Ky.) John Hardin 5-star defensive tackle Matt Elam spurned the premier football program in the country and donned a blue Kentucky football helmet, that change is afoot in Lexington.

Elam's commitment is symbolic of the culture change taking place in Lexington.

The thing about change is that it requires the one thing that fans tend to lack and are generally unwilling to exercise: patience.

It's something that former head coach Rich Brooks realized when he was assigned with undertaking the rebuilding process at Kentucky in 2003. Change is a process and it doesn't happen over night. You have to stay the course.

But it's not just a culture change taking place at Kentucky. It's culture shock.

When Mark Stoops was hired on as Kentucky's 36th head football coach in November of 2012, he inherited a recruiting class ranked in the mid-60s nationally.

Sometimes in the midst of a coaching change, as we've seen with the recruiting class that James Franklin left behind at Vanderbilt, things can fall apart pretty quickly if you're not careful.

But it wasn't that difficult to fend off the buzzards and keep UK's class together because, to be honest, it was made up mostly of guys that other schools frankly didn't want.

And that's the way it had been for years as the Wildcats eked out a meager living on the recruiting trail, beating out MAC and Sun Belt schools for recruits, never daring to look the SEC bullies in the eye much less go toe to toe with them for fear of losing its lunch money.

In a 66-day sprint to signing day, Stoops transfused enough talent into the UK class to finish No. 34 nationally, the Cats' highest finish in years and up 16 spots from No. 50 in 2012.

During his announcement ceremony Thursday, Elam donned a blue UK helmet.

Formerly an exercise in futility, Stoops did it by winning high-profile recruiting battles and as defensive coordinator at Florida State, he was no stranger to recruiting against the big boys of college football.

Za'Darius Smith chose UK over Auburn, Florida State, Texas, Texas A&M and Miami. Stoops and Vince Marrow pried Marcus McWilson away from Nebraska.

Take Jason Hatcher. At one time, when being recruited by coaches at Tennessee, the Louisville (Ky.) Trinity 4-star defensive end and U.S. Army All-American had some not-so-flattering things to say about Kentucky.

"I told them, 'you lost to the University of Kentucky,'" Hatcher said of the Volunteers 10-7 loss to the Wildcats in November 2011. "'You lose to UK, you lose to everybody because UK finishes last in the SEC every year.'"

My, how things change. Hatcher chose the Cats over USC.

The state of Kentucky doesn't produce a ton of top tier talent, certainly not enough to sustain UK by itself, let alone other schools. And so when it does, you have to get your paws on it.

Hatcher, along with fellow 4-star prospects Ryan Timmons and Drew Barker, are all kids that in a million years would have never considered the Cats under the previous staff, even admitting as much.

Stoops fought off Florida and Ohio State for Timmons and South Carolina for Barker. But Elam was a different story altogether.

Elam was a 5-star prospect. Uncharted waters for Kentucky football. Since the beginning of the modern recruiting rankings, along with Tim Couch, Dennis Johnson, Antonio Hall and Micah Johnson, Elam was one of the top five highest-rated prospects to choose the Cats.

Historically speaking, Kentucky doesn't land kids like Elam. Defensive line, specifically, is a position at which the Wildcats have always had trouble recruiting at a high-level on a consistent basis.

To give you an idea of UK's fruitless efforts on the recruiting trail, one of UK's most productive defensive tackles in 2010 and 2011 was walk-on Luke McDermott, who led the Cats in sacks over that two-year span.

In addition to scholarship offers from Ohio State and Notre Dame, this was Alabama, by any sense of the word the premier football program in the country and the machine of a team that was a fluke play away from competing for a third straight national championship.

If Alabama is a machine, coach Nick Saban is The Terminator. Cold. Robotic. Mission-driven.

Just like John Calipari and Kentucky basketball, Saban and the Crimson Tide have the ability to go in and pull a kid out of any nook and cranny in the country, not the least of which includes the state of Kentucky. And like Calipari, Saban has produced the top-ranked recruiting class each of the last four years.

But Stoops and Co. didn't back down.

"We're not going to take a backseat to anybody," Stoops said on signing day 2013. "We're going to recruit hard. We will win our fair share. We won't win them all but we're going to work hard."

And that's exactly what the UK staff did. Normally, an assistant coach and maybe a position coach take the point on a prospects' recruitment, but with Elam, it was a true team effort.

Every coach on the staff lent a helping hand, getting Elam on campus a total of nine times and conducting six in-home visits over the course of the last year.

"It's hard to turn down Alabama but my heart is at the University of Kentucky," Elam said during his announcement Thursday.

But Elam also cited his relationship with the other UK commitments as a factor in his decision. It can't be overstated how important it was to get 4-star guys like Denzel Ware, UK's first 2014 pledge, and another Kentucky kid like Barker, on board early.

There wasn't exactly a precedent for a 5-star prospect picking Kentucky so the other six 4-star 2014 commitments and 10 over the last two classes gave the Cats credibility despite suffering through a combined 4-20 record over the past two seasons.

"Players want to play with other great players," Stoops said previously. "They see what we're doing, they see the plan that you lay out for them. They understand your commitment to winning, but they also want to know that there are other great players around them."

It's that same dynamic that may help UK get its foot in the door with Berea (Ky.) Madison Southern's Damien Harris, another 5-star Kentucky prospect who is ranked as the top running back prospect in the country.

All part of the process and the culture shock taking place at Kentucky.

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