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University of Kentucky freshman offensive lineman Jon Toth has been named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman Team, as voted on by league coaches, after a strong rookie campaign on the Kentucky offensive line, it was released Thursday.
Toth is the 23rd Kentucky player since 2000 to be named to the SEC All-Freshman Team with Kentucky having at least one honoree every year since 2008. Toth was named to the team as a center.
The native of Indianapolis, Ind., had a great year for Kentucky, starting the last 11 games at center for an offensive line that helped three Kentucky players rush for over 400 yards in the same season for the first time since 1986. The redshirt freshman had 41 knockdown blocks on the year and only missed three assignments the entire season. Toth’s best games came against Alabama State and Tennessee, when he graded out at 91 percent and 85 percent.
Why was it important for Kentucky to finally add a football recruiting room at Commonwealth Stadium?
Coach Mark Stoops and his staff could give a long list of reasons, but let’s stick to why UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart recently said it was important when he discussed plans for renovations at Commonwealth Stadium.
“Obviously, we can’t use it during the game. At this point, the rules allow us to use it pregame, at halftime, and postgame. Additionally, it’s close to where our locker room will be. That’s really important,” Barnhart said. “We thought it was important to create a great environment with our students around that area and give our student-athletes a feel of what it is like in the student body.
“When they come out of the tunnel we thought it would be a pretty good environment. We wanted to concentrate all of our team facilities in that end. Obviously, it is also close to the Nutter Indoor Training Facility and there are some pieces of that we still use.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Freshman running back JoJo Kemp called this a “learning” season for him.
“Just learning the game speed. Playing in the SEC, it is the top conference and just getting down the speed and learning new techniques, picking up blitzes, and just learning the playbook. It is a lot different,” he said. “Six or seven months ago I was in the high school playoffs. It has been a learning year and I know what I have to do to get better. I am going to get my ankles fixed and get bigger and get that mentality other SEC players have got and become that dominant player I was in high school.
“I want to make college like the same thing like in high school that I had where every time I got the ball, I just made plays. That’s what I want to do. I know I have got it in me and the coaches know I have it in me. I just want to make them proud and make my community back home proud and make the city of Lexington proud because I know this program will be changing and there are a lot of people behind it. I just want to make everybody proud so we can have a good time in Lexington, Ky.”
He’s convinced the good times can come, too.
“We’ve got a quarterback (signee Drew Barker) coming in, so that’s going to make more competition, so everybody’s going to get better, and that’s what it’s all about,” Kemp said. “We’re trying to get this ship moving. I came here for a reason, and that’s to win. I see it. We’re going to get this program moving and things will change. I’m going to always have faith in this team, this coaching staff.”
Brown anticipates the increased competition — transfer Braylon Heard and signees Mikel Horton and Stanley Williams — will help push and motivate Kemp next season, too.
“To improve, you have got to have competition. We have got to get competition on our offensive line, wide out. We have to get more numbers. With that, you have better outcomes,” Brown said. “And JoJo, he’ll embrace that. Everybody that is great does.”
“Of course it motivates you. That’s what it is all about. Great players coming in to keep us all on our toes and getting better and not wanting to lose your job,” Kemp said. “That is what changes the program around. You get the best out of everybody because everybody wants to see the field. It’s a great thing.
“I am not mad at anybody. I am not down at competition that is coming in. It is just going to help each other get better each and every day. When you have guys that are selfish, that is just going to lead the program in a bad direction. I am not one of those guys. We won’t tolerate it. When guys come in, we are going to help them just like we got helped when we got here.
“It’s all about the program, not me, and I like that we are getting good people. We are rebuilding and I want to see this program change. It don’t matter if I am playing or not. I just want to win. That’s what should matter to us all.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky didn’t win a Southeastern Conference game, lost to in-state rivals Louisville and Western Kentucky, and finished the season just 2-10. Yet freshman running back JoJo Kemp said the year did not shake his confidence at all in the program or himself.
“I am one of those guys that will keep that humbleness and confidence in me and just try to get the job done,” said Kemp, who led UK with 482 yards rushing — 4.82 yards per carry. “There are a lot of great players on this team and a lot of great leaders. We had some seniors that led the team correctly and I was pleased to have them teaching me.
“I just want to keep building. I came here for a reason and I won’t lose focus of the task at hand. I am just going to keep grinding on and off the field and in the classroom, weight room and just get this ship moving.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown wants Kemp to be one of those that keeps the “ship moving” forward. He had a long run of 47 yards and caught nine 56 passes for 56 yards. His numbers likely would have been even better if he had not been hampered by ankle injuries.
“I think he learned a lot. I don’t really feel like our young guys ever questioned themselves,” Brown said. “I think they are disappointed and they got frustrated in the outcomes and how things were going, but I don’t think they lost confidence. He (Kemp) was banged up and had some ankle injuries that we didn’t make a big deal out of that are not long term, but he was not as explosive as he was early.
“It’s so hard to depend on freshmen because it is a 12-week grind. In high school they are not going against the same competition week in, week out and the level of contact and the load on them is so hard here. Their bodies get so wore down, and I think he did that. But he’s going to be a productive player. He’ll be much more explosive next year than he was this year.”
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops says because Kemp was not “100 percent healthy” late in the year it impacted his play.
“He needs to physically get bigger and continue to develop, and he will,” Stoops said.
Kemp said he plans to “get my ankles fixed, rehab, get in the weight room and get bigger and just keep fighting” to get better during the offseason.
“The amount of cuts I have to make, it (the ankle injury) kind of limited me a couple of times at the end of the year,” Kemp said after UK’s season ended. “I am fine. I am just one of those tough players that can fight through pain. I don’t make excuses for myself. I am just going to get better on and off the field and just trying to be the dominant player I know I can be.”
University of Kentucky junior defensive end Alvin “Bud” Dupree and senior linebacker Avery Williamson were named second-team All-Southeastern Conference performers by the Associated Press on Monday for their strong 2013 seasons.
This is the first AP All-SEC honor for Dupree and Williamson. The two stars were named All-SEC third team last season by Phil Steele’s College Football, while CollegeFootballMadness.com named Dupree a third-team All-SEC performer and Williamson a second-team All-SEC performer in 2012. Kentucky has had at least one AP All-SEC second-team selection every year since 2002. Both players were named second-team Midseason All-SEC by Phil Steele College Football earlier this season.
Dupree had a great year for Kentucky ranking 37th in the conference with 61 tackles, including 5.5 tackles per game. The native of Irwinton, Ga., finished the season with a team-best seven sacks, ranking sixth in the conference and 40th in the nation in that category. The junior also finished with a team-high 9.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries and two fumbles forced. Dupree had a career game against Mississippi State with 13 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. The 13 tackles in a game was the most for a UK defensive lineman since game-by-game records were available back to 1993.
Williamson finished the season as UK’s leading tackler for the second consecutive year, posting 102 total tackles to rank tied for fourth in the SEC in that category. The senior also had four tackles for loss, one sack, three quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries. The native of Milan, Tenn., finished his career with 296 total tackles. Williamson, who played in 49 career games with 24 starts, had double-digit tackles in four games in 2013 and ended his career with 12 double-digit tackle games.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says he was “encouraged” by what he saw of Braylon Heard during practice this season.
The 5-11, 190-pound Heard transferred from Nebraska to Kentucky last summer. During his two seasons with the Cornhuskers, he rushed 77 times for 452 yards, a 5.9-yard average, and one touchdown. He had 348 yards — 6.7 per carry — in 12 games as a sophomore.
He played for Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, and rushed for 1,973 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior, while catching two touchdown passes and anchoring returning duties for kickoffs and punts. Cardinal Mooney went15-0 and won the Division III state championship his senior year .
He was ranked among the top-five running backs in the country and top 60 overall recruits nationally by Rivals.com. Scout.com ranked him among the top 35 running backs in the nation.
“He has a different gear,” Brown said. “I think he has worked really hard with some of the things off his Nebraska film that (running backs coach) Chad (Scott) and I really thought he needed to work on.
“He has looked good, and when we had scrimmage opportunities, he really made some plays. I think he will be a factor for us in a lot of ways next season.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown liked the way tackles Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle, who he felt was one of the team’s most surprising players, played this year. However, he was not satisfied overall with UK’s line play during a 2-10 season.
“First of all we have to get some competition. A lot of our issues go to a lack of competition. We have to get more players, more quality players, at each position. Not just up front, but at wide out, running back, quarterback, to push one another. We have to get some depth,” Brown said.
“I think Jon Toth at center has done some good things, but he is just undersized. He is 270 pounds playing center in the SEC. That’s not ideal. He has got to get bigger, stronger. And the guys that played inside some, Zach West and those guys redshirting, those four guys — Cole Mosier, a walk-on I think will be a factor. Nick Haynes, Ramsey Myers and Kyle Meadows. Those guys have to get ready to play.
“If we can add somebody in the junior college mix, we will. But we have to get more guys there ready to play and get more competition and we have to get significantly better in the middle of that offensive line.”
Swindle, a sophomore, understands that. He played in 11 games as a backup in 2012 before becoming a starter at right tackle this year.
“I feel like last year we didn’t play as hard and these coaches instilled in us to play until the end and not give up this year,” Swindle, an all-state lineman in Florida, said. “We are going to keep playing and getting better, too.”
Here’s more of Swindle’s insights on his play and what lies ahead for UK.
Question: What difference can a year of experience and offseason training make for players before next season?
Swindle: “I think from last year we are leaps and bounds from where we were, and these coaches weren’t even here the whole time. They came in just for spring and then fall camp. Then here for whole winter break and workouts will make a huge difference with strength, speed and techniques and getting the plays down. It will be awesome.”
Question: Considering the big jump you made from 2012 to 2013 in your play, can other players do the same for 2014?
Swindle: “I feel like Jon Toth also made big jumps this year. He was shaky at the beginning, but he got the starting job and got the mentality to take it and run with it. I feel he will get better and better.”
Question: What is the biggest thing the offense needs to make a big jump?
Swindle: “Just quit shooting ourselves in the foot. We make multiple mental errors, myself included. Penalties and stuff. I feel like we have the athletes and size. We definitely need to get stronger, that’s a big deal for myself personally as well.”
Question: Are the mistakes the product of the first year in a new offense and things that can easily be cleaned up for next year?
Swindle: “Yes, and just lack of focus. Either too excited or not excited enough to where we make mistakes. You just try to focus better and you can get rid of those mistakes.”
Question: When offensive coordinator Neal Brown says you were one of the biggest surprises this year, do you take that as a compliment or a slight that he didn’t expect enough from you to start with?
Swindle: “Both because I have always had confidence in myself. I feel like I had a rough spring just because we put in new pass sets and stuff like that. From the last coaching staff with Mike Summers, he put a lot of confidence in me. He never played any freshmen, or very seldom and very rare, and he played me. I feel like that gave me confidence.
“Then I kind of had a shaky spring, but I knew when it was game time to just go crazy and be nasty. I had the confidence, but not there as a whole group for us.”
Question: How much does it help that four starters return in the line along with four more players that were redshirted?
Swindle: “That is huge. A lot of stuff that goes on in the offensive line is unspoken, so if you don’t have to say what is going to happen, then the defense has no idea. If they pick up on calls and we have to repeat the call over and over because everybody is not together, then the defense can pick up what we are doing. It’s huge.”
Question: What difference will it make having more competition for playing time next year?
Swindle: “I feel like the more bodies you have to play is really not that big a deal because coach (John) Schlarman really likes to keep the five in the whole game. I am excited to see what the freshmen coming in can do and what the redshirt guys can add that are already here. I feel like I bust my butt in practice and games every single day, so I am not too worried about competition. But I think competition is good and keeps people on edge, and that is good.”
By ASHLEY SCOBY
In Blake McClain’s first collegiate game, he forced a fumble from one of the more highly regarded running backs in the country: Western Kentucky’s Antonio Andrews.
From that point on, there wasn’t much of a downhill slide for McClain, who finished the season with 59 tackles (tied with Za’Darius Smith for third on the team), including 37 solo (good for second on the team, only behind Avery Williamson). He recorded five pass breakups and a tackle for loss, and was the only freshman to record a forced fumble.
McClain originally committed to Kentucky under former head coach Joker Phillips, and became a “soft commit” once the new coaching staff was announced. He stuck it out, though, and he saw the dividends of that decision this year: significant playing time and production in the SEC.
“It’s a learning experience coming from high school ball to arguably the best conference in football,” he said. “There’s a lot of learning experience. I’ve learned just to be tough. SEC is a tough conference, so you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be big.”
The “tough” part of the equation, McClain says he has mastered, and the numbers he posted this year would reflect that. Getting bigger, however, will be a focus for McClain heading into the off-season.
“Next year, everything will be polished. I’ll be bigger, stronger, faster, and have a great feel for SEC football,” he said. “It’s going to be a great turnaround.”
A turnaround at what position, though, is probably still to be determined. McClain was recruited as a high school cornerback, then started fall camp as a safety, played linebacker against WKU and eventually settled in as a nickelback in defensive coordinator DJ Eliot’s scheme. McClain started in 10 of Kentucky’s 12 games, usually playing nickelback.
As a fifth defensive back, a nickelback has to have solid cover skills. But he also has to be a great tackler in case the offense runs the ball. McClain feels that he has all the skills necessary to be successful in that kind of system.
“You can play fast in this defensive scheme,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of checks. You just look at your guy and look at your keys and just play fast. That’s what I like about it.”
For a guy who has been clocked at 4.5 in the 40-yard-dash, a system where his speed can be utilized is perfect for McClain. But even with that speed, his transition to the Southeastern Conference still saw its rough patches.
“Everybody we played had that guy where it was like, ‘Woah, this is SEC,’” he said. “I was very impressed with Amari Cooper (Alabama wide receiver) and TJ Yeldon (Alabama running back). Those are great players. Once I played them, I was like, ‘Dang, I’m really playing SEC football.’”
Although McClain stuffed the stat sheet this year, he did not record an interception: something that all of his fellow defensive backs besides Ashely Lowery can sympathize with. Besides Lowery’s pick in the final game of the year, Kentucky’s two other interceptions on the year were by linebackers (Josh Forrest and Khalid Henderson). With McClain set to be a statistical leader as a defensive back next season, he says that anemic number will soon change.
“It just says we’re young, basically,” McClain said. “It just says we’re inexperienced, and we’ll get that fixed in the off-season. Next year there are going to be a lot of picks.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Without wanting to go into great detail about Kentucky’s quarterback play, coach Mark Stoops will admit it was “not a perfect situation” this season with both Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith battling injuries and inconsistencies.
“It’s an issue. I think each guy did some good things at times and some things that weren’t so good, and again, that’s our whole team, though. That’s not just on those guys. We have to play better around them,” said Stoops after his team’s 2-10 finish in his first year as head coach. “So we can’t just put that all on the quarterbacks. But I don’t think it’s a perfect situation and I don’t think anybody really went out and just said, this is mine, which you’re waiting to see.”
Smith played in nine games and completed 105 of 183 passes for 1,276 yards and nine scores with just one interception. Whitlow played in 12 games and was 98 of 159 passing for 1,035 yards and five scores with five interceptions. Whitlow also rushed for 457 yards, the third best mark on the team, and a team-high six scores.
“Nobody expects to go 2-10 in consecutive seasons, but I can sense that something about this program is going to change. Coach Stoops, they’re getting their recruits in, implementing their system,” Smith said. “It’s tough. A lot of guys struggle with a new system, just little, tiny mistakes. I think that’s our biggest thing is mentally, there are a lot of mental mistakes out there. We know how to practice now, we get a winter under our belt, we get another spring, and I think we’re going to have a big turnaround.”
Smith called it a “disappointing” season.
“We all felt good going in. We knew we had a tough schedule like I said, so it was disappointing. When you go 2-10 it’s obviously disappointing,” Smith said.
Smith and Whitlow, both sophomores, will be pressed in spring practice by redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and sophomore Patrick Towles, who redshirted this season also. Plus, Conner High School quarterback Drew Barker will arrive at UK in January and will participate in spring drills.
Smith has been hampered by a sore shoulder that he opted not to have surgery on after the 2012 season. Stoops still believes he “could be healthy enough” to compete for playing time in 2014.
“I hope he can and I think he needs to go in and we need to look at that shoulder again. This was (a) different (injury this year). (Trainer) Jim Madaleno and our doctors tell me this injury right now is a little different now than other problems he’s had,” Stoops said.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said it was a “patchwork” season offensively.
“It’s a deal where we’ve gotta get better. I’ve gotta do a better job coaching those guys. They’ve gotta do a better job playing consistently,” Brown said. “I think it was encouraging that Maxwell played as good as he did (against Tennessee). He’s gotta connect on those deep balls.
“Unfortunately, we’ve got quite a bit of time around the holiday season that I’ll have to sit around and contemplate and get this thing fixed. The next two weeks are going to be recruiting; our guys are going to get to work. The guys that are here are going to get to work and we’re going to get to work recruiting for two weeks. And then we’ve got a big, long break where it’s a dead period where I can sit around and get a lot of our problems fixed.”
Brown said there’s no doubt UK has “to play better” at quarterback in 2014 no matter who the starter is.
“I think we have to play more consistently there. I think that’s understood,” Brown said.