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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.
By LARRY VAUGHT
With so much attention focused on Kentucky’s quarterback battle, there has not been as much buzz over the competition to see who will emerge as the starting running back among JoJo Kemp, Bryalon Heard, Josh Clemons and Mikel Horton.
I think running back, you can be by committee. Now, we’d like a guy to jump up and just be the guy and be able to do everything. But I think you can kind form that running back position around what people do the best. But I know coach (Chad) Scott wants a guy to emerge, and I’d like for that too, but you can — it’s not a negative if we do it by committee,” offensive coordinator Neal Brown said Monday.
What does he like best about the running backs currently?
“They’re catching the ball really well. They’re actually catching the ball better than our receivers, which I’m not sure is a good thing but they are,” Brown said. “They are doing a nice job. We do a deal where we do a catch percentage, and we want everybody — everybody should have a 90 percent or higher catch percentage. All the running backs do. They’ve had very few drops. We’re doing some things this spring to get them more involved in the pass game because all those guys that are playing can do that. So, I’m pleased with those.
“Pass protection wise, technique wise we’re good. We have a few technique errors, and some of that is because our defense is doing a lot as far as blitz. But I’m pleased overall with them in the pass game, from catching and blocking.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
With injuries to so many receivers, offensive coordinator Neal Brown spent time after Monday’s practice catching passes from quarterbacks Patrick Towles, Drew Barker and Reese Phillips to help give the quarterbacks extra throws.
“The quarterbacks aren’t getting enough work right now, so we’ve gotta build in pre-practice and post-practice stuff to make sure they’re getting enough reps in the stuff that we’re going to run,” said Brown as UK gets ready for the Blue-White Spring Game Saturday.
Brown again talked extensively about the quarterback race, which is down to three players after last week’s decision by returning starter Jalen Whitlow to transfer when the semester ends.
Question: How big a concern is it that he’ll have a quarterback starter who has played no college football or very little?
Brown: “Well, Patrick’s got very little (experience). You can probably count that as none almost. I think it’s a little bit of a concern. I don’t know. I’ll take talent over experience. As long as they’re talented, which the three kids that are practicing right now are talented; the ones that haven’t played, they’re talented. There will be some mistakes. I think you’ve gotta kind of factor that in. There’s going to be some mistakes. I think you gotta take care of them, especially early in the year, get them some confidence. But I feel good about those guys. They know how to prepare and we’ll do a good job putting them in a position where they can be successful.”
Question: Is there more pressure on Barker, Phillips and Towles with Whitlow gone?
Brown: “No, I don’t think so. I think there’s pressure at that position no matter what. At this level, in this conference, I think there’s pressure. Jalen being here or not being here, I don’t think that affects it. Whoever the guy’s going to be, there’s going to be quite a bit of pressure. I don’t think there’s any question. I don’t think we try to hide from that either.”
Question: Will he try to make sure he does all he can, including stacking the lineups, so the quarterbacks have a good spring game?
Brown: “Oh, I don’t know, that’s the head coach’s decision, man. Two-comma question.”
Question: Will all three quarterbacks come out on the first play of the Blue-White Game like he had Towles, Whitlow and Maxwell Smith do last year?
Brown: “No, I can’t. That wouldn’t be funny this year. That wouldn’t be funny. No, I don’t know. I haven’t even gotten to the spring game yet. We’ve got a big practice on Wednesday and then we’re lighter on Friday. So after Wednesday, I’ll probably start thinking more about the spring game.”
Question: Will he pick a starting quarterback at the end of spring practice or let it carry over into summer/fall?
Brown: “I don’t know. Coach (Mark) Stoops and I are going to have some conversations. We want to get it narrowed down. I don’t know if we’ll pick one on Saturday. Something will probably have to happen over the next week or so to make that determinations. But we do plan to hopefully narrow it down. We’ll see how it goes.”
Question: Is it important for players to know who the starter at quarterback is for summer workouts?
Brown: “I don’t think — I think it’s important we give somebody in camp, within a reasonable time toward the start of camp. I don’t think the summer necessarily matters, but I think toward the start of fall camp or during the early parts of fall camp I think that needs to be done.”
Question: Does he have a gut feeling about the quarterback job he’s just not ready to share yet?
Brown: “Not really. I’ve got an idea who’s looked the best in some pressure situations. Nobody has just grabbed it yet. I hope that happens. I’m really interested to see — and I didn’t mean to avoid it — but I’m really interested to see what happens on Saturday.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said today that the Cats are dangerously thin at wide receiver going into Saturday’s Blue-White Spring Game.
“I like where we’re going, just getting some guys nicked up and that’s starting to bother me, nothing major, I don’t think anything major, just guys that are going to be nicked up and maybe this last part of this spring practice. (Receiver) Jeff Badet twisted an ankle pretty good today. Guys like that, we’re starting to get pretty banged up at wide receiver. Other than that, we’re in pretty good shape and getting better,” said Stoops Monday.
Receiver Ryan Timmons said he would play Saturday, but he’s not 100 percent either.
“Timmons is coming along very well. He’s done a very good job this spring. He’s a little banged up as well, so he got a shoulder. He got hit the other day and got a little setback. Nothing that’s going to require any surgery or anything like that, so we’ve just got to get him back, get him healthy. I’ve got to see where he’s at for the spring game. He’s had a good spring,” Stoops said.
He says both receivers Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams have both had solid springs.
“T.V. had some big catches and some big runs at times and Thaddeus, we’re just seeing consistent improvement with him. He’s a guy that needs all the reps he can. He’s a little tweaked up as well with a little muscle pull, nothing major. Hopefully he can get out here the rest of the week,” Stoops said.
Stoops said receiver Joey Herrick has ” been banged up as well” this spring.
“He’s a good guy, a quality guy that can get you in and out of some practices and at times possibly work his way into the lineup here in the future,” Stoops said.
Again, he emphasize none of the injuries at receiver were major, just injuries that had impacted spring practice.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said because of the lack of numbers at receivers, injuries this spring have become an even bigger deal.
“We need more scholarship wideouts. We need more walk-on wideouts. I think we’re probably a year away from getting this thing, from a numbers standpoint, where it needs to be,” Brown said. “We were grossly thin getting here, and then we’ve had some injuries this spring that definitely haven’t helped. So hopefully we can get some of those guys back. Jeff Badet got rolled up today, so we’ll have to see what the extent of that is. Hopefully we can get some of these guys back healthy so we can put on a good show on Saturday.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Now that Jalen Whitlow has announced he will transfer rather than accept a move from quarterback to receiver, where does that leave sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles?
He couldn’t beat out Whitlow or Maxwell Smith when he was a true freshman in 2012 under then coach Joker Phillips. Last season he redshirted after Whitlow and Smith emerged 1-2 in the preseason quarterback battle under new coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown.
“I wasn’t here for the first time, so I don’t know if he really lost that or not, but he has made tremendous strides, now he’s got a long way to go, Patrick does,” said Brown Wednesday. “And he’s still making some decisions that aren’t correct, making some negative plays, but he’s gotten tremendously better from a fundamental aspect. So that should be a positive for him, not necessarily a negative for Jalen.”
With Whitlow gone, that also means Towles, Drew Barker and Reese Phillips will have one less person to split quarterback reps with in practice until a starter is named.
“That’s why we made the decision. We’ve got to get it down to a manageable number. We’re hoping to do that going into fall camp. I think that was part of the issues we had last year is we let it drag out too far and we didn’t get enough quality reps for either Jalen or Max,” Brown said.
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Jalen Whitlow made the best decision for himself to transfer to another school so he could continue to play quarterback, but he probably also did Kentucky a favor with his choice after being asked to move to receiver.
Whether it was his fault or not — and former coach Joker Phillips and current coach Mark Stoops have said repeatedly that it was not — Kentucky was just not very good offensively when Whitlow played. The Cats were a combined 4-20 the last two seasons and while many noted how well Whitlow could throw and run in practice, he normally had trouble completing passes in games.
In Neal Brown’s offense, efficiency is the key word. Fans want big plays; Brown wants first downs and accurate throws.
Whitlow was not even a full-time quarterback in high school, but from the day he got to UK he was determined that he would play quarterback, and only quarterback. I still remember at the 2012 media day if he could envision himself being the next Randall Cobb, a high school quarterback who made the move to receiver at UK and is now in the NFL, and he quickly and politely told me he was a quarterback.
But he was not the quarterback to run Brown’s offense — and UK fans were never going to buy into him leading an “Air Raid” offense when in-state favorites Drew Barker and Patrick Towles, both prolific high school passers, and redshirt freshman Reese Phiillips, a much more accurate passer, were potential starting quarterbacks.
“We’re narrowing it down. So we’re making progress. We like where we’re at. We’re improving. We’re getting it narrowed down. It’s just like Jalen, last night, we made that decision with Jalen. I talked to him yesterday. He made that decision last night. I told you today. The other guys, we’re working our way through it. It’s not a big secret, we’re just working through it,” coach Mark Stoops said Wednesday when asked if Whitlow’s transfer meant Brown had picked a starter.
Stoops said it best when he noted that both he and Brown felt “Jalen’s best skill set” for Kentucky was at receiver. That obviously means the two coaches have seen enough of Barker, a true freshmen, along with Phillips and Towles to believe at least one, if not more, would be ahead of Whitlow at quarterback when the season starts.
“As far as the other three quarterbacks that are competing right now, we’re working through that situation. It’s fluid,” Brown said after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve told you, and it’s going to be the same stance. You all can ask questions about it, but basically is we’re working through it. We want to make a quicker decision than we did last year, but all three guys, we’re mixing up the reps. They’re doing some good things, they’re doing some things that aren’t so good. As soon as we make a decision, just like today, you all will get notified.”
Brown admitted Saturday’s scrimmage, which was not open to the public, played a role in the decision to ask Whitlow, a versatile athlete, to switch positions.
“There’s more weight that goes into the scrimmages, but this decision wasn’t based just on Saturday. It was a year’s worth of work and I think Saturday was eight practices (into spring ball). So Saturday, the other guys probably did some better things, but it wasn’t just based off one afternoon,” Brown said.
Remember, Brown and Stoops had last spring and all last season to watch Whitlow and Maxwell Smith, who is out this spring rehabbing from shoulder surgery, to play quarterback. Most Kentucky fans were convinced neither could be a winning SEC quarterback. That’s why going into spring drills that Barker, Towles or Phillips figured to have a terrific chance to become the starter — and now one will be.
“You have a past performance. And I will say this as well: Jalen made strides. He was better this spring than he was in the fall, but the other three guys who are competing are better, too. And maybe they made bigger strides, OK? But this wasn’t premeditated, this was something as we went through the nine practices, we made a decision on, it was clear,” Brown said.
What about Whitlow being the most mobile?
You always try to tailor your offense and your plays to the skill set of your players. With him (Whitlow) in there, obviously there’s a few more options. But ultimately we want to throw the football,” Stoops said
Throw the football? That’s not Whitlow’s strength and that’s why he was not the right for UK or Brown.
“We’re always going to fit around our personnel. I don’t think the offense that we ran last year is ideally what we want to do, but I thought it gave us the best chance to win,” Brown said. “We can fit around his skill set. It came down to consistently making throws. That’s what it came down to. He made really good throws, but not on a consistent as a basis as he needed to.
“This is not a negative on Jalen, OK? The other three guys are performing well. I feel good about where we’re at the quarterback position, now we’ve got to go do it with the lights on, but Saturday in the scrimmage or game atmosphere, that was the best that any quarterbacks have looked since I’ve been here for a calendar year.”
Which is why Whitlow is now headed for another school and UK is guaranteed to have a new starting quarterback next season.
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Rather than move to wide receiver as he was asked to do by coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown, quarterback Jalen Whitlow has decided to transfer.
He started seven games as a true freshman n 2012 and started eight games last year in Stoops’ first season when UK went 2-10, the same record in had in 2012. He rushed for 663 yards and nine scores in two seasons and threw for 1,834 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“I’m never surprised. I know Jalen was disappointed. I was hopeful that he would give it a try, but I understand where he’s coming from,” said Brown after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s played quarterback most of his life. He feels like he is (one), so I understand and I’ll support him.”
Whitlow will finish the semester before transferring and having two years of eligibility remaining. Stoops said it would be between him and Whitlow what transfer restrictions, if any, are placed on the player.
“I appreciate the University of Kentucky and what the coaching staff and administration have done for me,” Whitlow said in a statement released by UK since he was not available to the media. “I also thank the community and the fan support I have received here. I wish the coaches and my teammates the best of luck.”
Stoops talked to Whitlow twice Tuesday about where UK was with the quarterback battle that includes sophomore Patrick Towles, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Barker.
“He’s worked very hard for a long time, through high school and through college here, to help this university and be the best quarterback he can be. So I wish him the best of luck,” Stoops said. “We were in a situation where, once we told him where we’re working it out with quarterback, and asked him to play another position (and) if he’d be open to that, he decided that it’d be in his best interest to go somewhere else and play QB. That’s where his heart is. That’s what he wants to do. I understand that.”
Stoops said he had not asked Whitlow to change positions before discussing a possible move to receiver with him Tuesday.
“We’ve given him every opportunity to win the starting job. He deserved that right. He was in there. As you know, he played some good football for us at times last year,” Stoops said. “I’ve said this over and over again, it’s not all about the quarterback position. We needed to get better across the board. If Jalen was coming back here next year and being the quarterback and playing for us, we’d be a whole lot better than we were last year, just because the whole team should look better. It’s not just on him.”
Brown said he was “disappointed” Whitlow was leaving and called him a “great kid” on the team.
“Love the kid, appreciate everything he’s done for the program. I want to make sure that we understand that our lack of success last year, he only played a minor role in that,” Brown said. “We didn’t do enough as coaches and at other positions groups — I want to put that out there too, I want to make sure we’re clear on that.
“Respect his decision, understand, but again, disappointed. We had a couple different conversations yesterday. We made the suggestion about moving positions, and he wants to be a quarterback, which we definitely understand.”
Stoops said he knew moving to receiver would be a hard change for Whitlow.
“When you’re bundled up at the quarterback position, it’s a different position. Again, I don’t look at it like he’s throwing in the towel on us. I wish he was here,” Stoops said. “I wanted him to stay here and play for Kentucky in some position. But he wants to play quarterback, so we understand that.
“It’s hard, as you know. It’s hard to get four and five guys reps. Listen: I want to move on. I want there to be a clear-cut winner or a starter, or at least one and two, so we can start narrowing down reps. But one thing that I can be sure (of) is that I feel very fair that I gave Jalen a great shot to win that job.”
Both Stoops and Brown said the talk with Whitlow was not easy on anyone.
“It was tough. I have a lot of respect for Jalen. He’s a good kid. Worked extremely hard. He’s talented, and he does have the skill set to run the football, and throw it at times,” Stoops said. “He’s maybe not as consistent as we’d like to be in the pass game. But he’s a very good quarterback, and it is tough to have that conversation. I appreciate the work that he did.”
Brown said coaches know they have to make hard decisions as part of their job, but that doesn’t make it easier.
“It’s never fun. It’s not something I enjoy. It’s really one of the worst aspects. What I try to do … and what I did with Jalen … I told him I care about him, which I do. I want him to do what he thinks is best for him in regard to our team. But I also wanted to be up front and honest with him and I knew there would be a decision he had to make,” Brown said.
“I was hoping he’d make the decision to stay, but I do understand. And I appreciate his contributions. I really do. Last year was a tough year. It wouldn’t have mattered who played quarterback; it was going to be a difficult, difficult season. He weathered some things, some adversity, so I’m proud of him for that. But it is: it’s a difficult thing, for sure.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Head coach Mark Stoops and offensive coordinator Neal Brown both liked what they saw from freshman receivers T.V. Williams and Thaddeus Snodgrass, both January enrollees, during Saturday’s scrimmage.
Stoops: “The young guys did some good things. Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn’t come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good.”
Brown: “T.V. (Williams) had some highs and some lows. He had a drop that would’ve been a big play, and then he had a long touchdown reception. So he showed some signs. I think Thaddeus Snodgrass is starting to come along. It’s a lot on a receiver initially. It really is. He’s getting a lot of reps because we’ve got some guys that are banged up. Mikel Horton (running back), he did some good things. I think he got tired probably. It’s a big difference (from high school).”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown didn’t ask UK’s offensive line to do a lot in Saturday’s scrimmage, but he liked what he saw.
“But they’re better. I think they’re playing more cohesive. A lot of that has to do with we’re not trying to shuffle (backups) in. Our one group is getting a lot of the reps together, and we’ve got some experience there, obviously, with Jordan (Swindle) and Darrian (Miller) on the exterior,” Brown said.
One player especially caught his attention.
“Zach West is really making some positive steps (at guard), which he needed to. He needed to, and I think it’s big that he’s had an offseason, where last offseason he didn’t get to go through it because he had shoulder surgery,” Brown said.
“And then (guard) Ramsey Meyers, he makes some mistakes but he’s talented and he’s strong. And then (Jon) Toth, I think I told y’all last time I was able to talk to you, that he’s probably our most-improved player (at center).”
By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Mark Stoops certainly liked Saturday’s scrimmage and the improved efficiency and energy he saw from his team on both sides of the ball.
“We got some good work in. Definitely really the best we’ve played this spring, for sure. Look a whole lot better. Again, not where we need to be. We’re a little bit nicked up at wide receiver, but overall I thought we really did some good things,” Stoops said. “No significant injuries. Good physical scrimmage, got a lot of plays in. Felt like the quarterbacks did some good things. So, overall very pleased with the effort.”
He said the scrimmage, which ended a bit earlier than scheduled, was a “lot better” than the first one this spring.
“We probably weren’t quite ready. That’s maybe why I was a little frustrated: looked a little bit sloppy,” he said. “But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage. So that was kind of good just to get into that mode, put the ball down and play.”
He said there was no noticeable edge for the offense or defense.
“I thought both. I really did. That’s why it’s hard for me, because if one side does well I’m disappointed in the other,” the UK coach said. “But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better. We’re still a little thin — I don’t want to get in too much to the injury situation, nothing major, but we’re still a little bit thin at wide receiver. But they still managed to throw it, catch it, move the ball.”
Stoops said it was nice to have more to work with now than he did a year ago during his first spring practice at UK.
“We feel better. At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we’re running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you’re getting ones, twos and threes,” he said. “Already in the spring, you’re already a little bit thin if you don’t have your whole group here. So it’s sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We’re definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We’re getting there, getting better. Need to get everybody healthy obviously. We’re not deep enough to have a bunch of guys out.”
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was just as happy as Stoops.
“Had a good day. Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere — the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we’ve executed,” Brown said. “What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we’re getting closer.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year. We didn’t have a single turnover, very few penalties. So all those types of things, a big-time improvement from where we were last spring and last fall.”
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot liked that his unit “played with some better energy” than in the first scrimmage.
“I think that we got some things to build on. Still got a long ways to go, but we got number of practices left to get better,” Eliot said. “I think that on defense we tried to just be vanilla. We weren’t trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on.”