As the SEC media days approached, I had the opportunity to meet up with Owasso Head Football Coach Bill Patterson.
The meeting was regarding another subject, but Patterson knew of my affection for my home state Arkansas Razorbacks. He gestured to a photograph of one of the many athletes that line his office and said, “That kid is special. That kid will play at the next level.”
That kid was Keon Hatcher. The Razorbacks senior wideout who, as much as any player on the roster, embodies the program's rise from SEC West doormat to SEC West contender.
In high school, Hatcher grew fast. Maybe too fast. His 9th grade coach said he struggled to even run. He was gangly and awkward by most accounts. But that would change. By his senior season, Hatcher was highly recruited, and as one coach put it, “He beat us single handedly.” You may hear that about a quarterback or a tailback, but not a wide receiver. Their production is greatly affected by those around them. Nonetheless, Keon took it to his rivals and drew the attention of one of the highest powered offenses in the country under Bobby Petrino.
But Hatcher would never catch a pass for Petrino. You know what happened next. The motorcycle crash that ended signaled the beginning of the end of the Petrino era also foreshadowed the immediate future of the Arkansas offense. John L. Smith's single season as head coach in Fayetteville featured numerous ill-advised decisions. Burning Hatcher's redshirt season for little use, only one of them. Arkansas was the laughing stock of college football.
The Razorbacks would go on to hire a fantastic coach in Brett Bielema. However, the style and personality of the team would change dramatically. The emphasis went from the air to the ground, with little success playing in the daunting SEC west. It would take time.
You might wonder why the history lesson about the coaching carousel, but it is significant to this story. Many talented athletes would have packed up their bags and headed somewhere that fit the style they wanted. They would listen to all of those people telling them that they can make a bigger name elsewhere, maybe back nearer to home. It happens every year. Students transfer in hopes of finding success under another banner, and for some it pays off. The majority simply ride off into the sunset and will tell their grandkids about how they were under appreciated. As harsh as that sounds, there are those whose character supersedes their ego. They stick it out and make the most of their opportunity. They work harder to compete and find their new role.
Keon was almost two years younger than the others in his recruiting class. He wasn't the solidly built, durable over-the-middle guy you see now. He was barely older than some of the recruits making visits. If he walked away after the season and never looked back, people would have said they understood. He was still young and wasn't in the situation he expected. New strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert saw the potential, and Keon put in the work. Herbert may be the biggest personnel hire at Arkansas, and if you don’t believe a strength and conditioning coach can make a difference, just watch the video from the last night of off season workouts, “When the Racks Go Up, The Freaks Come Out.” Hatcher transformed his body into the specimen you see today. From various accounts, he had added over 20 pounds to his frame. There were rumors that Keon would leave early for the NFL draft. By most accounts, his season was simply mediocre. He led the team in many statistical categories as a junior, but in the run heavy offense at Arkansas, he had yet to make a name for himself. He instead chose to bet on himself and return for his senior season. He devoted more time to his footwork and route running skills. With one game now in the books, it would appear that his bet was a safe one.
In the opening game of his senior season, Hatcher was able to showcase his skill to the tune of 6 receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He also had a key block for a teammate that resulted in another long score. The new offense implemented from offensive coordinator Dan Enos looks to feature the pass more than previous ventures under Bielema, and has moved Quarterback Brandon Allen onto many early watch lists, all evidence that Keon Hatcher is poised to be a difference maker.
Off the field, Keon has continued his excellence. He returns home to cheer his Owasso Rams when given the opportunity, graciously available pictures with kids and adults alike. Academically, he is also on schedule to graduate in the fall, a full semester early. Not only does that speak to his work ethic, but his foresight as he looks toward the upcoming NFL draft, and that potential is very real.
Hatcher was selected as one of three invitees to represent the Razorbacks at the SEC media days. He is now entering his senior year at Arkansas, and that time span has seen the program endure hardship and restoration. His leadership and endurance are the trademarks of turning a program around.
Competing in the SEC western division in what is ranked as the third hardest FBS schedule going into the season, Keon will have ample opportunity to put his work on display on the grandest of stages. With Tulsa being the second largest alumni population for the University of Arkansas, there will be plenty Calling Those Hogs and find themselves Calling on Keon.
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