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By LARRY VAUGHT
Starting with Saturday’s game against No. 7 Louisville, Kentucky probably faces the most difficult upcoming four games — Florida, at South Carolina, Alabama follow Louisville after an open date — of any team in the country.
But senior running back Jonathan George says the Cats need to be “moving one week at a time” and not thinking ahead.
“This week it’s Louisville. Not saying I don’t realize that the schedule is not going to get any easier from here on out, but we are just moving week by week and going week by week,” said George. “Right now we’re just going to focus on Louisville and focus on preparing for those guys because they do have a good ball team.”
However, George did admit beating Miami (Ohio) 41-7 last week and rolling up 675 yards of total offense gave UK a needed “confidence boost” after an earlier loss to Western Kentucky.
“The defense, they played awesome and they pitched a shutout (Miami scored on a fumbled punt). The offense, we had the opportunity to move the ball down the field numerous times and put some points on the board,” George said. “I feel like it’s a big confidence boost for the freshmen as well as the rest of the team because those guys had the opportunity to make plays as well. I feel like it will be a big help coming into, not just this week, but the rest of the season as well.
“The first week of course it was very disappointing, but it’s behind us now. I feel like we just need to come out every week and try to build off of this last week, this last game and continue moving forward and trying to make those big plays.”
Here’s more of what George had to say about Louisville and more going into Saturday’s game.
Question: Does moving the ball against Louisville in last year’s loss give the team more confidence this week?
George: ““I feel like it does. I feel like we have a great offense and I feel like Saturday was just a preview of what we can be. We had a couple of mistakes here and there that prevented us from having, from making even more plays. So I feel like, you know, if we get everything polished up it can be an even better offense than we showed Saturday.”
Question: What makes Louisville good defensively?
George: “I’ve read up and started watching film on those guys. I realized that they did hold both of their opponents to one touchdown. Obviously, they’re doing something right on defense. You look around and see they do have guys flying around the ball and making plays. Of course they’re a highly ranked team and they play pretty positive, so we need to come out this week – like I said, our focus week of practice, put an extra emphasis on being disciplined and being ready to play Saturday cause I’m pretty sure those guys are going to come in ready to play as well.”
Question: What do you think of offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s play calling?
George: “The word I think of when I think of his play calling, I want to say kind of ruthless because you know I feel like we try not to hold anything back, like the sweep play and the plays he set up off of the sweep play. Like he has a great mindset and he’s a great offensive coordinator.”
Question: What was different about UK against Miami and Western Kentucky?
George: “This last week of practice was really – you could tell a big difference in practice. Everybody was more focused. The coaches came out more intense. They pushed us. Every little thing they pushed us about, and they warned us about. I feel like the players responded well to that toughness from the coaches. I feel like it was a major up because now we realized that our margin of error is not that big and we have to come out every week and be focused. We don’t want to experience one of those letdowns like we had the first week.”
Question: Could he tell Brown was more of a taskmaster and less of a cheerleader before the Miami game?
George: “There was most definitely a big difference in the demeanor of the coaches in the second week than in the first week. Like I said, they were a lot more intense and a lot more just kind of on us a whole lot harder than they were building up to that first game. Honestly, I like it. Obviously it showed great improvements from the first week, so hopefully they will continue to go even harder on us in practice. Because I feel like it will help the discipline and some of those mistakes that we had, such as the penalties before the snap and all that stuff.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Maxwell Smith’s impressive play in the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Western Kentucky earned him a chance to start at quarterback Saturday when Kentucky hosts Miami (Ohio).
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops was quick to note that he was not blaming former starting quarterback Jalen Whitlow for the loss, and UK players say they can’t depend only on Smith to win this week.
““It’s not just Max. It’s plenty of senior leaders on this team and guys that’s not seniors such as Max that need to step up,” senior running back Jonathan George said. “We need to step up and be those type of leaders and when adversity comes, we need to be the ones to pick the team up and get us ready to play. It’s very disappointing (the way UK played against Western), especially since we’ve worked so hard. But we feel like we just have to take it as a learning experience and because nothing’s going to be given to us.”
“We aren’t going to let this team fall apart. We’re going to keep moving forward,” senior running back Raymond Sanders said. “I feel like we moved the ball pretty well against Western when we didn’t hurt ourselves. The defense stepped up big at times. It was 21-17 at halftime and then we hurt ourselves with penalties and execution and did not put points on the board.
“We are doing the right things. If you keep doing the right things over and over, good things will happen. That’s why this game is not about Max being the starter. We just have to go in 100 percent with who is in at quarterback and do our job to help whoever win.”
One plus for Smith is that Miami’s pass defense gave up five scoring passes last week in a loss to Marshall. Smith’s forte is passing while Whitlow’s strength is running.
“Every week, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win the game and prepare to win the game. With that being said, you have to build on who you are. That’s where us as a staff are still doing the best we can to put our players in a position to win, to move the ball, to stop people on defense. I think that’s the quandary that you get in to as a play-caller sometimes. What can you do? What can you handle?” Stoops said. “(Offensive coordinator) Neal (Brown) has full autonomy to do what he needs to do to move the ball. I have tremendous trust and confidence in the whole offensive staff to find that balance, to do what we need to do to win this game and to build on our future.”
Smith felt the same way when the coaches started Whitlow last week.
“The coaches made the best decision that they felt was best for the team, and I was just ready when my number was called,” Smith said after the Western game. “We’re all frustrated. But plain and simple: They were better than us today. Plain and simple, they beat us in every aspect.”
Smith said he learned from watching during last week’s game before he came in to complete eight of 13 passes for 125 yards and one score.
“I know I made a few mistakes when I was playing, but I thought I played OK,” he said.
Brown said UK is not changing “schematically” with Smith at quarterback.
“Will we look different with Jalen at quarterback than Max? Yes. Yes, we will. But does the base of the offense change? No. Maybe what I call does, but the offense doesn’t,” Brown said.
Both Brown and Stoops said Whitlow would still play Saturday.
“Jalen will play in this game,” Brown said.
“I think Jalen has deserved an opportunity to play. But again, if Max is going out there and rolling, things are going good, then we’ll stay with Max. But yes, we want Jalen to play. We believe he can bring some diversity to our package and make some people prepare for some different things with his skill set,” Stoops said.
The UK head coach noted again Thursday that Smith was not “perfect” against Western Kentucky.
“Like I said earlier in the week, Jalen did some really good things. And like I said all along, it has a lot to do with the other players around him, when you move the football or don’t move the football,” Stoops said. “It’s not at all ever on the quarterback. But he made less mistakes and he did some of the basic things that we’re looking for correctly and distributed the ball where we needed to. So that was the big thing with helping us move the football.”
Smith hopes UK can take advantage of Miami’s pass defense.
“Coach (Brown) told me (Marshall) was the leading passing team in the country, so following up that performance might be a little hard. Obviously, Miami of Ohio’s got a chip on their shoulder just like we have a chip on ours,” Smith said. “I think it’s all about us getting better, not really about what they’re doing, but what we’ve got to do.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
If Mark Stoops is right, running back Jonathan George’s performance could be the most overlooked part of Kentucky’s preseason camp.
“I feel good about Jonathan. I think he’s done some really good things. He’s been very dedicated, he’s played very physical and he’s done a really nice job,” said Stoops after Wednesday’s practice.
“Maybe you take him a little bit for granted. He’s just a guy, like I said, he’s a joy to coach and be around. He’s always working hard and playing physical, which I like.”
So does offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
“We definitely can count on him. I thought he was the best player in both of our scrimmages on offense. Hard-nosed kid, was physical, broke tackles. So I’ve got a lot of trust in him,” Brown said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown thinks the aggressive personality of running backs coach Chad Scott is showing with the way UK’s backs are performing in practice.
“I think all those running backs have really competed hard. I think Ray (Sanders) keeps getting better. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised at Raymond Sanders this year. I expect big things from him,” Sanders said. “Jon George, kind of a steady Eddie. Then Jojo (Kemp) and Dyshawn (Mobley), we need those guys. They’re different running styles, but we need those guys to come. And they are. They’re going to play.
“We’re going to have to be able to run the ball guys. We’re not in a position – we’re talking about freshman receivers. All that sounds good in this setting, but at the end of the day they’re still 17, 18 years old, and they’re still going to have to go out there and play. For us to put all of our cards in their deck or all our eggs in their basket, that wouldn’t be real wise. So we’re going to have to run the ball.”
That suits Scott, a former UK running back who coached with Brown at Troy and Texas Tech, as he pushes his backs to get ready for the season-opening game Aug. 31. Scott shared these insights.
Question: How are the running backs doing?
Scott: “They are looking real good. I have been impressed with the guys in terms of pass protection standpoint. They are coming along. (Senior) Ray Sanders is doing really well. He has had a great camp. The goal is just to keep him that way. Jonathan George has really come on and made some plays. He started out sluggishly, but he has picked it back up. Dyshawn Mobley has gotten back. He started out slowly, but he has made some big plays the last few days. And (freshman) JoJo Kemp has made some plays. I am really pleased with those guys, or at least I am right now. We have a long ways to go but we are making progress.”
Question: Is Kemp as good as you thought when you recruited him or maybe even better?
Scott: “He is as good as we thought and we thought he was good. He just has to continue to adjust to the wear and tear on his body from college football. His body has never felt like it feels right now. He just has to keep pressing, but he is as good as we thought.”
Question: Do you like Kemp’s enthusiasm and outgoing personality off the field?
Scott: “I like his toughness. Like his personality, love his toughness.”
Question: So is he a physical player like he claims he is?
Scott: “That is a fair description. He is a kid that will dictate tempo. He is not a follower. He doesn’t need nobody to push him. He is driven. That is one thing that has surprised me about him. He sets tempo. He wants it. He will jump in without somebody telling him. I really like that side of it.”
Question: How do you get backs to play with the tenacity you want?
Scott: “I always tell those guys if they lack energy, find it within me. I am always happy. The biggest adjustment from high school to college is pass protection. It is a lot of technique, but a lot is attitude and that’s one thing we stress. Everything we talk about always goes back to pass protection. If you can get those guys to have confidence to pick up the blitz, running the ball is almost second nature to them. ”
Question: Do you agree with coach Mark Stoops about Kemp having a pit bull mentality?
Scott: “He does have that mentality and we love him. Sometimes I have to pull him back. He will want to go up against somebody 90 pounds heavier than him. You can’t tell him he can’t do. He has that kind of mentality.”
Question: How would you describe Mobley in comparison to Kemp being a pit bull?
Scott: “One and the same honestly. Just a little taller and a bigger pit bull. The thing you will see with him is knowing who you are. JoJo is going to be a guy that can make people miss. He can break tackles, but at least for right now not being as big as other guys he’s going to have to specialize in making guys miss. Mobley is going to be a power runner. He’s going to break tackles. He’s going to make this offense exciting because he’s going to stay on his feet and run through people and get yards after contact and make big plays by breaking tackles.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
There was a time when it looked like running back would be the deepest position not only on the Kentucky offense, but perhaps on the entire team. Now that has dramatically changed.
First, Justin Taylor, who orignally committed to Alabama before signing with UK, transferred after his spring practice without ever playing a down at UK. Apparently he felt he would be buried on the loaded depth chart, especially after getting just four carries in the spring game and hearing coach Mark Stoops say he had a “lot of work to do” to get on the field.
Still, that left senior Raymond Sanders, one of UK’s most impressive players in the spring, and Jonathan George returning along with sophomores Dyshawn Mobley, who saw limited action in 2012, and Josh Clemons, who sat out 2012 with a knee injury after a banner start to his freshman season in 2011.
Throw in freshmen JoJo Kemp and Khalid Thomas and UK seemed loaded both in numbers and talent at that spot.
Then news broke Thursday that Thomas had been booted off the team along with his brother, sophomore linebacker Pancho Thomas, for violation of a team rule. But an even bigger blow came Friday when UK confirmed that Clemons had been hurt during workouts and is scheduled to have a MRI.
“One position where we have some quality depth is running back,” said new UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown at the Louisville Quarterback Club in June.
He cited Clemons for having a “huge” game in UK’s Blue-White Game to end spring practice and that he showed the form he did in 2011 when he rushed for 279 yards in six games before tearing the meniscus in his knee against South Carolina. He had hoped to play last season, but the knee did not respond and coach Joker Phillips opted to redshirt him.
Clemons had game-changing ability when healthy because of his speed, strength and moves. His first collegiate touchdown was a 14-yard run against Western Kentucky that proved to be the game-winning score. He had an 87-yard touchdown run against Central Michigan, the longest scoring run by a UK player since 1970 and the fourth longest in school history. But perhaps the game where he proved he was for real came when he gained 69 yards against LSU, which had one of the nation’s top defenses in 2011.
He was the Class AAAA offensive player of the year in Georgia as a senior when he ran for 2,000 yards and 25 scores and finished his prep career with 3,585 yards rushing and 40 touchdowns.
Kentucky is not saying Clemons is seriously hurt. But any setback is not good news for him and knowing he’s scheduled for a MRI is not a sign of good things to come, either.
The Wildcats still have backs Brown can use in his offense.
“Raymond (Sanders) had the best spring of any back. He is an all-purpose guy. He makes people miss. He catches balls. He can do a lot of things in our offense,” Brown said.
He’s rushed for 1,078 yards on 233 carries in his three-year career and last year gained 669 yards on 125 attempts. He’s caught 39 passes for 238 yards and can also return punts or kickoffs.
George has rushed for 737 yards and six scores in three years. He’s a bigger, stronger back than Sanders, but also has speed.
“George is kind of a lunch-pail player and just goes about his business, which I like,” Brown said.
Mobley was a rushing machine in Tennessee during his prep career and got 41 carries for 184 yards last season. At 220 pounds, he’s a big back that Brown likes to have available.
“Mobley is young and physical,” Brown said.
Kemp could be the wild card, especially in Brown’s offense. He rushed 255 times as a senior in Florida for 1,469 yards and 23 touchdowns after running 178 times for 1,163 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior. He rushed for 210 yards and two touchdowns on a game televised by ESPN2, which featured several Division I prospects on defense.
“I think JoJo Kemp could be a factor as well,” Brown said.
That’s a likely depth chart of Sanders, George, Mobley and Kemp entering preseason practice — and the order might change by Aug. 31 when UK opens the season against Western Kentucky. Brown may also opt to use Franklin County’s Ryan Timmons in the backfield at times and fullback D.J. Warren also impressed Brown during spring practice. The offense may even occasionally have a tight end lined up in the backfield.
But what once seemed like the deepest position on UK’s offense is taking some hits and for a team that struggled to score points last year, that’s not good news even with an offense as successful as what Brown’s offense has been.
Kentucky football players Avery Williamson, Jonathan George and Kevin Mitchell spent a week serving in Ethiopia in late May as part of an athletic department-sponsored service trip.
The players shared thoughts on the trip and more.
Jonathan George, Sr., RB
On the overall experience…
“Overall, it was a great experience. I was chosen to go and it was a humbling experience because I got a chance to see some things that you really don’t see in America. It’s amazing some of the things that you see with the kids and the parents.”
On what in particular stood out…
“It was really amazing that every time we stopped there were people begging for food and money. It was amazing because it seemed like our bus was a celebrity zone. It was crazy how they came up and asked for food. You don’t really see that too much.”
On the difference of being a celebrity football player in America compared to over there…
“The people that we were under explained to us every time they see foreign people they clam to them and ask for food.”
What it was like for him being an African-American and experience the situation…
“It was great. My parents were jealous. They were like, ‘you get a chance to go to the mother land,’ that’s what they called it. I was glad to go just seeing the things that you see on television and some of the things that they don’t.”
On if this experience will help change his perspective on how he looks at things…
“Absolutely, one of the things I took from this trip was being thankful and being appreciative for the things I do have. I have always felt that way about things, being appreciative of what you have, because there is always somebody that has it worse. I feel like this opened up my eyes even more to that topic because some of the things I saw and experienced… it was real tough to see people going through those types of things.”
On how tough it was to look at the kids in Africa…
“Some of the kids didn’t have shoes or had clothes that didn’t match. They walked around with shoes that were way too big for their feet. They weren’t complaining about how their feet hurt because of their shoes but they were definitely happy to have on a pair of shoes that were two different sizes or two different colors. It was just a great experience for me to take away from.”
On if one person or experience stood out to him from the trip…
“We visited a leprosy community and there was an older man who didn’t have any legs. He walked around with flip flops on his hands and he used his hands to get around with. We were bagging food and charcoal for the people and he came in and started helping with his hands. He helped us bag the food that wasn’t just for him but for other people as well. He had a bike that he rode on and pedaled with his hands and that’s how he got around.”
On if this was an experience that he gained more than gave…
“I feel like it is. I was really glad to go over there and be able to help. In the future, I would really like to go back and do some more stuff for the people in Ethiopia.”
On if this alters his perspective of being a leader…
“Absolutely, I’m not really that vocal and I try to lead by my actions. I would like to go back and do things for the kids of Ethiopia whether it’s just me sponsoring somebody or whatever but I feel like it can carry over to the field as well just doing things. When people see you doing special things it makes people happy and I feel like they follow that lead.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Running back Jonathan George believes he has the versatility and experience that will enable him to fit into Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s offense. He’s rushed for 737 yards — 4.4 per carry — and six touchdowns and caught 23 pases for 233 yards and another score. But he was a state high school champion in both track and wrestling in Alabama as well as a two-way performer in football. He has played in 34 games with seven starts in three years at UK.
“I can run with power, catch the ball and my blocking has dramatically improved,” said the senior running back. I really believe I can do good things this year and fit great into this offense.”
Here’s what George had to say about practice, the offense, Brown and more.
Question: What excites you about spring practice?
George: “It is open competition. Nobody has a set position. Whoever works the hardest and best will get it. It is a new coaching staff with a fresh start for everybody. Nobody has a set position, so we are going to come out and work for it and that’s great.”
Question: Are you happy with your receiving skills and how they fit into this offense?
George: “I am. I think I have pretty decent hands. It is just working in the offseason and catching extra balls to help myself to be in better position to catch the ball.”
Question: How is practice different than what it was before?
George: “Just a little bit more up tempo. The coaches have high expectations for us and expect us to come out and play fast and fly around the field. There are a lot of guys stepping in and working hard, not just the guys who will be seniors. We have high intensity as players and coaches. We have goals set after last season to be a lot better.”
Question: What did you think of offensive coordinator Neal Brown on the field?
George: “He’s a very intense guy. He has very high expectations of us, too. Everybody is working hard, but he’s the head man of the offense and we are listening to what he tells us to do and trying to be on point with everything.”
Question: Is Brown a yeller/screamer?
George: “He can be loud. He is a very vocal guy, but that is what you need on the field. We know what he expects out of us and we are attacking it.”
Question: Do running backs like this offense?
George: “It is a great offense. It’s not just a passing offense. It’s a running offense as well. This offense gives us the opportunity to take advantage of both aspects, running and passing. If you are doing it correctly and running at the tempo you need it, it can be a highly successful offense both ways.”
Question: It is an easy offense to learn?
George: “If you study it, it is not too hard. It’s just a process right now because you are thinking on the field and adjusting to the new plays and new tempo. The tempo is probably the biggest adjustment. The offense is not too hard if you study it, but there is plenty of installation every day and every day it is something new. It is up to the player himself how he studies it and if you study it enough, it will be easy.”
Question: Does it help that UK ran some up tempo offense last year?
George: “I feel like it does because we have an idea what they want from us and how it goes. The tempo is very fast and you have to have great conditioning.”
Question: What do you expect out of this quarterback battle?
George: “They are all great quarterbacks. They will all compete and coaches will make the right decision.”
Question: How different is the team attitude this year?
George: “It is just different. With the losses we had last year, a few players were kind of down about it. We are all coming out with new attitudes and just attacking it every day whether it is in the film room or the weight room or on the field.”
Question: Doesn’t this offense expect to gain big yards running the ball?
George: “It is a great offense. I love this offense. You can take advantage of running. If you do it great, you can run the ball.”
Question: What was running backs coach Chad Scott like on the field compared to the meeting room?
George: “He’s laid back but on the field he is the same as coach Brown and all the coaches. They are all very vocal. They are pushing us all to be great, and that’s what we need to be great.”
Question: Are you in better shape physically than a year ago?
George: “We changed how we eat and doing a lot of things to take care of our body. We have even learned more about how important it is to get sleep.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
To perhaps get your mind off Kentucky’s disappointing loss at Tennessee Saturday in basketball, take a look at what UK running backs coach Chad Scott has to say about some returning UK players.
Question: Have you had a chance to evaluate the returning running backs yet?
Scott: “I have. Last year the two guys they used for the most part were Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George. Those guys played really well. Even though it is a spread offense, the run game is downhill. Sanders has the ability where we can use him as a running back and slot receiver and find ways to get him the ball in space. George, we will play more with him in the pistol because he is more of a downhill runner and will be very effective in short yardage and goal-line situations. So those two kids coming back with experience they have in the SEC is huge for us.”
Question: What about Josh Clemons, who redshirted last year because of his knee, and Dyshawn Mobley, who played sparingly as a true freshman?
Scott: “Mobley not play as much, so it is kind of hard to give him a fair assessment. We have to wait and see in spring ball and see how he does. With (Justin) Taylor being redshirted, we will have to wait and see what he does. Clemons, his freshman year he showed a lot of promise and what he can do. We are confident he has that ability. It’s just whether or not his injury lets him come back and do it again.”