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Hatcher refusing to let injury slow continued improvement

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Jason Hatcher registered the first sack of his college career on Saturday at South Carolina. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Jason Hatcher has 14 tackles and a sack five games into his college career. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Jason Hatcher has played football for most of his life, but he had somehow never broken a bone.

The first two came at an inopportune time.

Filling in for an injured Bud Dupree, Hatcher was playing and playing well in his first Southeastern Conference road game. He had already tallied his first career sack when his hand got caught in a pile-up and he immediately felt pain.

"I just feel like it's a part of the game," Hatcher said. "When my number was called, unfortunately Bud had to go out and I just wasn't going to let my hand stop me. I knew it was hurting but I had to fight through it."

What he didn't know is that he had broken two bones: his knuckle and another bone in his right hand. He kept the injury to himself and finished the game, finally telling his coaches on Sunday.

"I didn't say anything 'til the next morning," Hatcher said. "That's when I said something about my hand because I didn't want to come out of the game and I just felt like it was my turn to step up."

That Hatcher didn't think twice about playing injured against South Carolina should hardly come as a surprise. Coaches have raved about the true freshman's love for the game and consistent energy in playing it, but this was surely the most dramatic example to date of both.

"It tells me that his toughness is there and his heart is in the right place," head coach Mark Stoops said. "Like I said, he didn't flinch."

Hatcher's role has expanded as the season has worn on and the former four-star recruit doesn't plan on letting anything impede that process, not even the cast he's wearing at practice this week.

Everyone agrees the 6-foot-3, 250-pounder has all the physical tools. Now he just needs to build experience, particularly as Hatcher switches between the defensive end spot he's played throughout his career and an unfamiliar outside linebacker spot in UK's bigger package.

"I think what he does well is he always plays hard," Stoops said. "He lacks some experience and with the different things we're doing and the different positions we have him at, it's just a matter of playing and getting some experience. But he's a tough, hard-nosed guy and he's going to be a very good football player."

Avery Williamson - who's wearing a cast of his own to protect a deep bone bruise on his left hand - agrees that Hatcher has a bright future. Williamson also says Hatcher has already been an asset to the defense, though he needs work on some of the more nuanced aspects of his game.

"He's just got to learn, especially when he's playing an option-style team, to keep his shoulders square when he's going down the line," Williamson said.

That issue cropped up a couple times against South Carolina on Saturday with the athletic Connor Shaw running a number of read-option plays.

"In the heat of the moment when the game and stuff gets going, I gotta focus in and play assignment football with zone reads and stuff like that," Hatcher said. "Not turning my shoulders and getting up field."

Hatcher has already advanced to the point where he realizes immediately when he's made that kind of mistake. That's another step in an evolution that's still very much ongoing.

"I feel like I've grown up, but at the same time I feel like I'm a freshman because I'm still making freshman mistakes," Hatcher said. "Those are just things I have to work on throughout the season."

With top-ranked Alabama coming to town and Dupree's status uncertain, Hatcher is likely to have another chance to grow up on Saturday. Having played three straight top-20 opponents already, the shock of playing on a big stage is already beginning to wear off.

"Going into South Carolina, walking out there and hearing that stadium and all those fans, it was just like, 'Wow,' " Hatcher said. "Now we walk in this morning and we got Alabama packets, it's like, 'OK, we gotta line up and play again this week.' "

In many ways, Hatcher's season mirrors that of his team as a whole. The Wildcats are young, but they refuse to back away from any challenge. There have been mistakes and missteps along the way, but the talent is there. And from week one to today, Kentucky has improved by leaps and bounds.

Now, Hatcher and Cats will look to put that improvement on display against the two-time defending national champions.

"I just look at it as a great opportunity, not only for myself but as a team, to make a statement, to go out here and keep showing people that we get better each week," Hatcher said.

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