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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
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.
By ASHLEY SCOBY
In a season of multiple 13-yard punts, an anemic offense and late-in-the-season suspensions, it seems fitting that an interception by Kentucky’s Jaleel Hytchye would skirt off his hands and into Jason Croom’s for a Volunteers touchdown this weekend. It’s been a season of mishaps and misfortune for UK, full of injuries and bizarre plays that have put a damper on Mark Stoops’ first season in blue and white.
The light at the end of the tunnel for Kentucky fans, though, has been the recruits Stoops has brought to the program – players like Hytchye, who, although he couldn’t reel in that particular interception Saturday, has seen significant playing time this year and looks to make an even bigger impact next season.
Hytchye came out of high school rated by ESPN as a top 25 cornerback, as well as the 20th-best recruit in Ohio last year. He became Stoops’ first 2013 recruit and quickly took it upon himself to help the coaching staff recruit other top players to Lexington.
Now, Hytchye has a season in the SEC under his belt, having played in eight games, and starting against Georgia when the position was decimated by injury (Nate Willis) and suspension (Cody Quinn). He recorded 9 tackles on the season, including 7 in the Georgia game he started.
“I came out here and I got on the field,” Hytchye said. “I got the experience I needed. Everything I need to move forward is right in front of me. All my goals are still there. Everything I want to accomplish is still there. The season was a great season of experience and now I’m ready to get after it next season.”
The cornerback position next year figures to be much improved from this season’s. Not a single Kentucky corner recorded an interception this year, and safety Ashely Lowery’s pick in the Tennessee game was the first one by a UK defensive back.
“I’m not going to say it’s not frustrating,” Hytchye said of the 2013 season. “But at the same time, I feel like it’s going to define who we are in the future as far as being a better team because we’ve already been through it and the ‘almost making it.’ The only place we can go now is being better, making the plays we need to make to win the games, winning in close game situations and just being better in all areas.”
For Hytchye personally, he says he wants to focus on getting bigger, stronger and faster – a popular goal for the team, thanks to Stoops’ focus on improving the team’s physical stature. A tenet in sports has long held that a team will take on the personality of its coach, and Hytchye’s physical goals certainly reflect that.
His passion for the game, too, is something that meshes well with the coaching staff, he said. Late in the Tennessee game, Hytchye was flagged for pass interference – a call that he, the fanbase and the rest of the Kentucky sideline strongly disagreed with. Stoops was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for his verbal attack of the officials after the call.
“I’m not going to say I was happy, but it was kind of a good thing that he had my back because I was upset about it,” Hytchye said. “We’ve both got to settle down in a situation like that, but I feel like I was in great position. I feel like by no means did I interfere with the other receiver and so when they called that, I was furious. He reacted the same way.”
That refusal by the head coach to give up on his player is what gives Hytchye the most faith that next year will be a better season for Kentucky football.
“Even though our season didn’t go as planned, there’s a lot of teams that would have folded,” Hytchye said. “Just them (the coaching staff) keeping the same attitude towards us and us keeping the same attitude, you can tell something’s going to happen. Something’s going to change. We’ve been close in a lot of games. … This coaching staff is going to get us there. … It’s the best coaching staff in the country, and I think the coming years will show that.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
While his former players at Florida State were climbing to No. 1 this season and getting in position to win a national title, Mark Stoops suffered through a 2-10 season in his first year as Kentucky’s head coach. That’s not exactly what the former Florida State defensive coordinator hoped his initial season at UK would be like.
So what did he learn about himself this year?
“I mean, that’s hard to answer. I think you always grow. You always want to try to grow as a coach and as a person, and I think I’m doing that and I know I am in certain areas and I need to continue to just push,” said Stoops.
“We know this isn’t going to be an easy task and again, we’re going to go to work. We’re hitting the road. We’re going to grind it out in recruiting and our players are going to start lifting and running and we are going to build this program.”
Stoops said there is sense of relief that what he knew could be a difficult year is over.
“I’m disappointed,” Stoops said. “But I know there’s a lot of work to be done (in recruiting). All of our guys need to just continue to develop physically. We have got to get bigger and stronger.
“I know we’re progressing. I know we’re improving. There’s no doubt in my mind. We’re getting better and we need to continue to build this team and, I always accept responsibility. I know I can do better, and the coaches can do better. The players will continue to develop and we’re going to continue to recruit players that can come in and make a difference in this league.”
Stoops said “laying a foundation” is not easy. Yet he redshirted several players, especially linemen, that might have helped him if he had played them. He also has transfers sitting out that he expects to help next season. On top of that, he has a recruiting class currently ranked in the top 10 and one that could stay in the top 20 even after signing day in February.
“We are all disappointed with the 2013 season when it comes to the wins and losses, and I take responsibility for that. And I need to do a better job, and all of us will, and we’ll continue to keep on grinding and keep on pushing this program,” Stoops said. “But I know that we did lay that foundation and guys are ready to get back to work and ready to continue to build.”
Coordinators Neal Brown and D.J. Eliot feel the same way.
“I think we were patchwork at times (on offense). I think we were trying to cover up some things,” Brown said. “The offense we ran week to week is not exactly what I envision us being. I did think this — and I’ll say this about the kids we have right now: the results weren’t what we wanted but our kids did play hard. We didn’t have an effort issue at all this year.
“We’re real thin at offensive line. We’re real thin and those guys are banged up and it showed. And then we need playmakers. We need more guys that can make plays in space.”
Eliot said the defense might need to turn to the junior college ranks for help next season.
“We’ve always recruited junior-college players and have had some success with some at Florida State, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Eliot said. “We have to just grow. We tried to do some different things this year and we can grow off that and get better fundamentally in what we do on defense.”
Two Kentucky seniors believe Stoops and his staff will deliver what they have promised in future years.
“We have a great group of young guys. They’ve been making big influences during the games,” defensive tackle Donte Rumph said. “As the season went on, we had a lot more younger guys step up and make big plays in hard times. So you can see the potential there. Just going into the offseason, just knowing that and knowing they have that time to build during the offseason, you know it’s going to be a special year for UK next year.”
“This team will be better. The offense will be better. The defense will be better,” tight end Anthony Kendrick said. “So it is a bittersweet feeling, but I know the turnaround will be much better than this year. It’s a process. And in this process, you face adversity. You face some difficult times. It’s just all about fighting through it.”
By RENE CORNETTE
By LARRY VAUGHT
He had to make his mark on special teams, and did that so well that Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops joked that he might switch Dyshawn Mobley from running back to defense because of the tackles he was making.
But in UK’s final two games, Mobley showed he can definitely have a spot in Neal Brown’s offense even with the expected competition the Cats will have at running back next year.
Mobley scored on a 69-yard run at Georgia and then had a 53-yard run and a career-high 143 yards in the season-ending loss to Tennessee. He finished the year with 300 yards on 43 carries, an average of a team-high 7.0 yards per attempt.
“I told my team at halftime I was going to lay it all on the line. I told them I was going to go out there and have fun,” said Mobley after the Tennessee game.
Sophomore quarterback Maxwell Smith says there has never been any doubt that the 5-11, 210-pound Mobley, a record-setting back during his prep career in Tennessee, could run the football. He ran for 3,068 yards and 48 scores as a senior and had 5,849 rushing yards and 76 touchdowns in his prep career.
“We all know he can run the ball really hard. He’s got talent, but he has other stuff that he needs to work on and things that he needs to show the coaching staff,” Smith said. “He played great. He ran his butt off (against Tennessee). He ran really tough, and that’s who he is. He goes out every day on special teams and just balls. He is a baller and tonight he showed that he can play.”
Stoops admitted he was “impressed” with the way Mobley finished the season.
“I love the way he’s playing. He’s going all out and it’s good to see. He’s got great passion for the game,” Stoops said after the Tennessee game. “You could see that when he’s going down there and busting his hump on special teams and doing all those good things, so I’ve been pleased with Dyshawn.”
Stoops wished more players had seized the chance to finish the season strong to show him they deserved spots on next year’s team.
“We’ve got to continue to build in all areas of this program and we need guys to step up and take charge. We need toughness and we need leadership and we need to continue to have guys emerge in that area,” Stoops said.
Mobley said it was hard to patiently wait for a chance to show what he could do the last two years.
“For any kid it would be hard to wait your turn. I just sat back and waited for my turn. I knew I would get my chance and when I did I was going to give it my all. A couple people (were) down and the coaches had enough trust to put me in,” he said. “Once I got out there and started playing, it definitely slowed down.”
Mobley knows he has to work in the offseason to keep improving.
“We have just got to get in there and work hard,” he said.
Brown said it was “encouraging” to see how Mobley finished the season, but now he has to show he can be a more consistent player.
“He’s gotta focus more. He runs the ball really well, OK? His running ability, I’ve never questioned. He’s gotta be more consistent in his pass protection,” Brown said. “He does some things where he loses focus, like I think he had one or maybe two procedure penalties where he just didn’t get set in the backfield; we were going to direct-snap him.
“I think just consistency. He practiced better the last three or four weeks. That’s encouraging. But he’s got raw ability. He’s tough to tackle in space, and I’m real encouraged. I think he’s going to be a big-time factor for us moving forward.”
That’s what Mobley wants to help thank the seniors for what they did for him and his teammates this season.
“The seniors laid down the foundation for our upcoming season. They help push the tradition of UK football forward and now we have to take it and go with it,” he said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops faced a difficult decision on senior Raymond Sanders, his leading rusher and a player he consistently praised all season for his leadership.
Sanders was suspended for UK’s final game against Tennessee, the same game where UK’s senior would be honored in a pregame ceremony. Did he ban Sanders from participating since he was suspended? Did he let him participate because of what he had meant to the team all season?
Stoops opted to let him participate with 18 other teammates in the pregame ceremony and he received a nice ovation from Kentucky fans.
“He made a mistake. You know, he didn’t make a mistake to dismiss him from the team,” Stoops said after the game. “He just couldn’t play in this game. I don’t see why ‑‑ I didn’t want that to define Raymond for the rest of his time for all that he did. That wasn’t, in my opinion, the right thing to do.”
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think of Stoops’ decision and his loyalty to Sanders for what he did from the time Stoops arrived until he did make his one mistake.
By LARRY VAUGHT
After watching another call go against Kentucky, coach Mark Stoops vented his frustration and got his first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of the year.
Was it frustration from a season of losing?
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have done it. Just got the best of me and that’s my fault. Shouldn’t have done it. I get along good with that official, too. It wasn’t directed at him, that’s for sure. It was on the other side,” Stoops said after Saturday’s loss to Tennessee. “But no, he’s a good guy, and you know, they do a good job. It’s hard. It’s hard. It is what it is. You’re going to get some calls; you’re not going to get some calls and you have to be able to overcome that. I know that.
Was it just the frustration of the night and the year?
“Hey, I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I want to do. I think you guys can see me. I try hard to not do that, you know and to keep it together, and we’ve got to be able to overcome things,” Stoops said. “Sure, it’s frustrating. Every coach in America goes through those things, and sometimes things are going to go your way and sometimes they are not. You’ve got to deal with it and move on.”
However, UK fans, and players, seemed to like the way Stoops fought for his team even in a losing cause to earn the penalty.
“I think people that know me know I’m going to fight and all that, and my players do. But you also know and I also know, that sooner or later, they just call you an idiot … you know what I mean. Comes down to winning games,” Stoops said. “Again, I try not to ever get totally … I mean, I don’t want that label on me. I’m not going to get out of control on the sideline or whatever. Sometimes you get called and sometimes you don’t. You’ve got to deal with it and move on. Again, I said that’s my fault. But that’s not me. That doesn’t define me and how I act.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky senior linebacker Avery Williamson wiped away tears as he left the Commonwealth Stadium field. He was upset UK lost 27-14 to Tennessee Saturday night, but he was crying because it was his final time to play for the Wildcats — and he not only loved playing at UK but also knows better times are ahead.
“I have no regrets about anything. I loved it here,” said Williamson, who finished his career with 296 tackles. “But I also know I was part of something to help build this program for the future despite our record (2-10). This coaching staff is going to get it done. There are good young players here. Fans should not worry. This program is going forward.”
That’s the same way first-year Kentucky coach Mark Stoops feels despite going 0-8 in SEC play and losing to in-state rivals Louisville and Western Kentucky. He was obviously frustrated that UK made way too many mistakes to even beat a mediocre Tennessee — but that was the story far too often this year.
“It was a tough way to wrap up the season,” Stoops admitted. “It was a frustrating loss, but give Tennessee credit. They played better than us. They made plays when they needed to. They coaches better than us. It seems it was that way most of the year for us. We all need to do things better, starting with me.”
Stoops praised his seniors, who went through back-to-back 2-10 seasons — the first one costing then coach Joker Phillips his job and the second one frustrating Stoops and UK fans who wanted more. However, Stoops noted it was not easy for seniors to deal with coaching and scheme changes.
“I thought those guys handles it well and tried to handle things well through the end of the year,” Stoops said. “We know we are laying a foundation in our program.”
That’s how Wiliamson felt, and why he almost wishes he could come back rather than now chase his dream in the NFL.
“People told me I couldn’t play here, but I think I proved I could be one of the best players in the SEC,” Williamson said. “I know I can prove myself at the next level, too. But I’ll miss here. It’s been great. And it will get better. Count on that. Just wait and see. Fans just need to keep believing.”
Stoops didn’t feel his players gave up on the season against Tennessee. He felt practice preparation was good and that players were “motivated and excited” to play and “wanted to go out with a good win” to end the season.
Of course, practice preparation was hampered by having not one, but two, quarterbacks hurting and unable to go through a full week of practice. Maxwell Smith started at quarterback and was 25-for-38 passing for 254 yards and two scores. However, Stoops revealed that he didn’t throw in practice Tuesday because of his sore shoulder and was even limited on Wednesday and that backup Jalen Whitlow, the former starter, played sparingly after spending last week seeing specialists and having tests to make sure his neck injury would allow him to play.
“He (Whitlow) did what he could to get in there and help us get out of the game. But he was not feeling good and he definitely couldn’t, I don’t think, take a whole game of getting hit and things like that,” Stoops said. “I mean, he was cleared, but just his mental framework in not being able to practice all week and all those things.
“And Max, again, he really gave it everything he had. His arm was bothering him. He took a shot last week and his arm was bothering him a little bit this week. Again, those guys tried to do what they could.”
But Kentucky seldom could do enough on offense or defense this year. Not enough depth, not enough overall talent. Stoops never made excuses. Instead, he often used the phrase “it is what it is” about his team — and those who understood football realized the obstacles he faced trying to fix problems that have plagued UK football for years in one season.
However, he feels no relief that the season is over. He’s a competitor. He wanted to win and expects to win.
“I’m disappointed. Right after this last game here, we really put a lot into this game. I thought, again, we were excited to play and really wanted to go out and play better than that. I’m disappointed right now,” Stoops said.
“But I know there’s a lot of work to be done and again, starting tomorrow, we’re hitting the road, and, we’ve got recruits on campus and meeting with our players that are here and go get in some homes and get busy recruiting.”
He insisted there’s “no doubt” in his mind the program is progressing. Wiliamson agreed.
“You may not see it on the scoreboard, but we got better,” the senior linebacker said. “These coaches know what they are doing. This program is going to be fine. The young guys will work hard and get better and they will keep bringing in players. Coach Stoops is a great coach and person. I’m glad I got to be around him this and glad down the road I will be able to say I was part of helping him turn this program in the direction he wanted.”