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Freshman Hatcher emerging in new role

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Jason Hatcher had a career-high four tackles in UK's 27-13 loss to Louisville on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Jason Hatcher has nine tackles through three games of his UK career. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Jason Hatcher was strictly a defensive end during a standout career at Trinity High School. He became comfortable with his hand in the dirt and grew into a four-star prospect because of it.

But three games into his college career, Hatcher is in the middle of a conversion to more of a hybrid role. In a continuing effort to put the best 11 players on the field as often as possible, the coaches worked Hatcher into the rotation more by standing him up on the edge as a linebacker.

Hatcher might have limited experience doing that, but that wasn't always clear in watching him play against his hometown team.

"Actually I didn't do any in high school," Hatcher said. "But we've been working it (since fall camp), so I had some confidence. There was some nervousness, but I feel like I did alright so I'm good on it now."

Facing Louisville, Hatcher had a career-best four tackles, showing pass-rushing ability and strength against the run, particularly when beginning plays on his feet. There were some occasional mistakes, but Hatcher showed more promise than anything else in filling a role he really never had before.

"There were some things that I worked on from week one to now because it was kind of the game plan for me to keep standing up, dropping back," Hatcher said. "There are still some things I need to work on with it, but I expected to do that."

Hatcher has worked at the outside linebacker spot since the opening of fall camp, but originally was behind Bud Dupree in the package. Through the first two weeks of the season, head coach Mark Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot recognized the need to get more size on the field, so Hatcher now plays with the first string in UK's three down linemen look.

The defensive line was always going to be the strength of the UK defense. And with juniors Dupree and Za'Darius Smith holding down the defensive-end spots, Hatcher seemed unlikely to move ahead of either as a freshman.

But in the new package, he doesn't have to. Dupree (6-foot-4, 252 pounds) and Hatcher (6-3, 250) stand up as outside linebackers, while Za'Darius Smith (6-6, 254), Mister Cobble (6-0, 334) and Donte Rumph (6-3, 320) man the defensive line. Avery Williamson (6-1, 238) and TraVaughn Paschal (6-4, 242) fill out the front seven to give UK a much bigger look.

It certainly worked against U of L, as UK held the explosive Cardinal offense to just 148 yards and 10 points in the first half.

"It does a lot for us scheme-wise," Dupree said. "No one can key in on blocking just one person."

That all sounds good on paper, but the execution is still a work in progress, particularly for Hatcher. Fortunately, there's a teammate he can turn to who has alternated between end and linebacker multiple times throughout his career.

"Jason never stood up before, so I had to really just show him little techniques about standing up and pretty much show him a lot of things," Dupree said.

Dupree reports the toughest task in standing up doesn't come in altering pass-rushing technique or even learning to cover speedy backs and receivers.

"It could be reading run or pass is probably the toughest thing because as a regular (defensive) end, you see pass and you're just going to go," Dupree said. "Standing up you gotta cover somebody possibly, so you've just got to be able to turn around and read your keys at all times."

Hatcher agrees that the mental aspect of the game is more difficult, because it requires accepting the inevitability of mistakes.

"I'd say it's more mental, you know what I mean, because you mess up but you can't let that keep me down," Hatcher said. "I gotta just keep going and keep going because I'm going to mess up a lot."

Considering his potential - both in the short and long term - the coaches are certainly willing to take the good with the bad.

"He plays physical, he plays with a passion," Eliot said. "So he's going to play hard, we just gotta get him going in the right direction all the time."

As for Hatcher, he has always planned on playing early in his college career and that was a factor in his decision to come to UK, even if he didn't expect to be playing as stand-up linebacker. Having made the change to the hybrid role, another of his reasons for coming to UK is proving to be valid as well.

"That was one of the reasons I came," Hatcher said. "I know those are great coaches and that's just proof."

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