By ASHLEY SCOBY
As long as you don’t outfit Jojo Kemp in Ralph Lauren Polo, he has the potential to have quite the sophomore campaign.
Kemp, Kentucky’s leading rusher last season as a freshman, traveled to offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s house this weekend directly after attending an Easter church service. With several athletes who couldn’t go home for the holiday there, a spontaneous kickball game broke out. By the time it was over, Kemp (and his Easter Sunday outfit) was a little worse for the wear.
“I was struggling out there because you know I had on my Polo,” he said. “It was Ralph, though. I had on Ralph Lauren everything. So we had a little kickball game and it just got competitive. I ended up slipping. I done ruined my Polo jeans. I got grass stains on them.”
Kemp struggled so mightily, in fact, that Brown took to Twitter to talk about it, tweeting “FYI … You don’t want @mikelhorton1 or @J_Kemp3 on your kickball team! Back to what they do best in the am. Spring prac 12. #GetBetter.”
To clarify, Kemp smiled and said, “I’m a real good kickball player if I have my gear right.”
Kickball skills notwithstanding, Kemp is gearing up to be the starting running back on a team that is deep with talent at that position. Josh Clemons, back from an Achilles injury, is practicing again. Braylon Heard, a transfer from Nebraska, is eligible this year. Mikel Horton, a true freshman, is looking to make a splash after enrolling at UK early and going through spring practice. Stanley “Boom” Williams, another true freshman with big upside, will arrive in the fall.
Kemp has recovered from his own injuries: He had surgery right after last year’s loss to Tennessee for bone spurs in his ankles, and has sat out a couple of spring practices as a precautionary measure against a tight hamstring.
But even with those setbacks, Kemp is ready to roll in the game that is finally slowing down for him.
“Last year I had my bone spurs so I wasn’t able to stick my foot in the ground and get up field,” he said. “I was beating a lot of guys with speed. Now, I’ve got speed and I’ve got that cut to get up field. I’m more of a complete back now. I know all my assignments, I know all the blocking techniques, I know all my run reads so right now, it’s just building and getting better, where last year I was trying to learn and get used to the game speed.”
For Kemp during his freshman year, it wasn’t about the physical reps. It was about the mental reps that both taught him how to be an SEC running back and slowed him down at the same time. Instead of planting his foot and cutting through a hole, he was usually half a second behind because he was thinking about what he needed to do.
This year, according to Kemp, that won’t be a problem.
“Now I’m just reacting as the play goes on,” he said. “When I get the ball and I see something, I go at it. I’m trying to make my high school plays again. I’m trying to be that dominant player in the SEC, so I’ve got to keep fighting and working hard until I’m that type of guy.”
One of the factors that could lead to Kemp being that dominant player is the competition he faces during practice. Not only is he competing for the starting job against guys like Clemons, Heard and Horton, but he is also competing against an improved Kentucky defense.
In particular, Kemp battles the most with junior linebacker Khalid Henderson.
“It’s just like a challenge,” Kemp said. “He was here last year and he played, and I played, so we were the only two guys that played a lot out of both groups. We just try to compete with each other, get each other better. We’re kind of used to each other.”
As spring practice – and his battles with Henderson and the rest of the linebackers – continues, Kemp will try to set the foundation for his sophomore year. After carrying the ball 100 times for 482 yards and three touchdowns last season against stiff SEC competition, Kemp is jetting right into his comfort zone.
“I’m trying to make this like high school again,” he said. “I got that first year out of the way. I know what it’s like to be playing big teams – the Alabamas and the South Carolinas and the Georgias.”
Just make sure that when those games come around for Kemp this year, his pads aren’t Ralph Lauren.