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 . “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 planned 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.”
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) 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.”