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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
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 — 4.82 yards per carry. “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 plans 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.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown says he was “encouraged” by what he saw of Braylon Heard during practice this season.
The 5-11, 190-pound Heard transferred from Nebraska to Kentucky last summer. During his two seasons with the Cornhuskers, he rushed 77 times for 452 yards, a 5.9-yard average, and one touchdown. He had 348 yards — 6.7 per carry — in 12 games as a sophomore.
He played for Cardinal Mooney High School in Youngstown, Ohio, and rushed for 1,973 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior, while catching two touchdown passes and anchoring returning duties for kickoffs and punts. Cardinal Mooney went15-0 and won the Division III state championship his senior year .
He was ranked among the top-five running backs in the country and top 60 overall recruits nationally by Rivals.com. Scout.com ranked him among the top 35 running backs in the nation.
“He has a different gear,” Brown said. “I think he has worked really hard with some of the things off his Nebraska film that (running backs coach) Chad (Scott) and I really thought he needed to work on.
“He has looked good, and when we had scrimmage opportunities, he really made some plays. I think he will be a factor for us in a lot of ways next season.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown liked the way tackles Darrian Miller and Jordan Swindle, who he felt was one of the team’s most surprising players, played this year. However, he was not satisfied overall with UK’s line play during a 2-10 season.
“First of all we have to get some competition. A lot of our issues go to a lack of competition. We have to get more players, more quality players, at each position. Not just up front, but at wide out, running back, quarterback, to push one another. We have to get some depth,” Brown said.
“I think Jon Toth at center has done some good things, but he is just undersized. He is 270 pounds playing center in the SEC. That’s not ideal. He has got to get bigger, stronger. And the guys that played inside some, Zach West and those guys redshirting, those four guys — Cole Mosier, a walk-on I think will be a factor. Nick Haynes, Ramsey Myers and Kyle Meadows. Those guys have to get ready to play.
“If we can add somebody in the junior college mix, we will. But we have to get more guys there ready to play and get more competition and we have to get significantly better in the middle of that offensive line.”
Swindle, a sophomore, understands that. He played in 11 games as a backup in 2012 before becoming a starter at right tackle this year.
“I feel like last year we didn’t play as hard and these coaches instilled in us to play until the end and not give up this year,” Swindle, an all-state lineman in Florida, said. “We are going to keep playing and getting better, too.”
Here’s more of Swindle’s insights on his play and what lies ahead for UK.
Question: What difference can a year of experience and offseason training make for players before next season?
Swindle: “I think from last year we are leaps and bounds from where we were, and these coaches weren’t even here the whole time. They came in just for spring and then fall camp. Then here for whole winter break and workouts will make a huge difference with strength, speed and techniques and getting the plays down. It will be awesome.”
Question: Considering the big jump you made from 2012 to 2013 in your play, can other players do the same for 2014?
Swindle: “I feel like Jon Toth also made big jumps this year. He was shaky at the beginning, but he got the starting job and got the mentality to take it and run with it. I feel he will get better and better.”
Question: What is the biggest thing the offense needs to make a big jump?
Swindle: “Just quit shooting ourselves in the foot. We make multiple mental errors, myself included. Penalties and stuff. I feel like we have the athletes and size. We definitely need to get stronger, that’s a big deal for myself personally as well.”
Question: Are the mistakes the product of the first year in a new offense and things that can easily be cleaned up for next year?
Swindle: “Yes, and just lack of focus. Either too excited or not excited enough to where we make mistakes. You just try to focus better and you can get rid of those mistakes.”
Question: When offensive coordinator Neal Brown says you were one of the biggest surprises this year, do you take that as a compliment or a slight that he didn’t expect enough from you to start with?
Swindle: “Both because I have always had confidence in myself. I feel like I had a rough spring just because we put in new pass sets and stuff like that. From the last coaching staff with Mike Summers, he put a lot of confidence in me. He never played any freshmen, or very seldom and very rare, and he played me. I feel like that gave me confidence.
“Then I kind of had a shaky spring, but I knew when it was game time to just go crazy and be nasty. I had the confidence, but not there as a whole group for us.”
Question: How much does it help that four starters return in the line along with four more players that were redshirted?
Swindle: “That is huge. A lot of stuff that goes on in the offensive line is unspoken, so if you don’t have to say what is going to happen, then the defense has no idea. If they pick up on calls and we have to repeat the call over and over because everybody is not together, then the defense can pick up what we are doing. It’s huge.”
Question: What difference will it make having more competition for playing time next year?
Swindle: “I feel like the more bodies you have to play is really not that big a deal because coach (John) Schlarman really likes to keep the five in the whole game. I am excited to see what the freshmen coming in can do and what the redshirt guys can add that are already here. I feel like I bust my butt in practice and games every single day, so I am not too worried about competition. But I think competition is good and keeps people on edge, and that is good.”
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 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 LARRY VAUGHT
If Patrick Towles is not happy at Kentucky, he’s certainly kept it to himself — something that is normally not easy for a quarterback who thought he would be playing to do.
Towles was Kentucky’s Mr. Football in 2011 when he led Highlands to another state championship. He was the bellcow in then UK coach Joker Phillips’ final recruiting class and was viewed as the savior of UK football. Instead, he got to play sparingly in 2012 only because other quarterbacks were hurt — and then got injured himself.
This season he was redshirted as he tried to cope and learn new offensive coordinator Neal Brown’s pass-friendly offense.
But with starter Jalen Whitlow returning, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips ahead of Towles on the season-ending depth chart, the possible return of part-time starter Max Smith and the arrival of Conner quarterback Drew Barker at UK in January, many have speculated that Towles will transfer.
Don’t count on it based on two messages he posted on Twitter after UK’s season ending loss to Tennessee.
“Big thanks to the seniors for giving all they had day in and day out and for helping in this programs transformation!!! Always #family #BBN,” Towles posted. Then he added, “Can’t wait for Spring Ball in Lexington! All improvement until then!”
Walk-on linebacker Tre Dunn of Mercer County has seen no signs of unhappiness from Towles, who was not available to the media after the season started.
“Me and Towles are really good friends. I always heard about him and (freshman walk-on receiver) Ozzie (Sheehan) both at Highlands. We have been pretty good pals. I am close to all the K-Y (Kentucky) kids. We have to stick together,” Dunn said. “I think Patrick is an extremely hard working individual and adversity is nothing new to him. He has handled everything well. He will continue to work hard because that is what he does best.”
Towles never pouted on the sideline during a game. He was usually one of the first to cheer for teammates. When Jalen Whitlow was injured at Georgia, Towles put on his helmet and was ready to play if needed even though it would have burned his redshirt year.
“He is definitely someone regardless of what his position is on the team, he knows everyone has a role,” Dunn said. “He is someone to bring guys up with him and encourage everybody to keep optimistic on the sideline. He is awesome. That is a trait everyone respects because he’s awesome like that.
“He loves it here from what I can tell. I don’t know all the details, but Patrick is an awesome teammate and I love having him around. He’s great to be with.”
Former UK quarterback Jared Lorenzen is a Towles fan. He coached Towles at Highlands, where he also played, and understands the rigors of playing quarterback in the SEC. He’s never asked Towles about his future plans, but knows he’s heard no transfer talk from those closest to him.
“He always kind of grew up wanting to play for UK. He finally got his wish and he’s on full scholarship,” Lorenzen said. “He got to play (last year), throw touchdowns. I have not heard anything about transferring. He could light it up in the spring (practice). Not anyone is just going to be given the job. Someone has to take it. Maybe he just needs another year for that to be him.”
Some have speculated maybe Towles would stay at UK and change positions. Lorenzen says no way to that.
“He is a quarterback. It’s hard if you have never played another position to switch and do it. It just takes certain mentality to play quarterback,” Lorenzen said.
But what about Danville’s Chase Harp? He was recruited by UK coach Hal Mumme at quarterback, didn’t win the job and eventually became a productive, starting tight end.
“What I love about Chase is that he was a dirty, mean player, and I mean that as a compliment,” Lorenzen said. “I wish I had had more of that in me. Chase loved the weight room. He was going to fight you. That was him. Moving him was fine.
“But at Highlands, if you play quarterback, you don’t play any other position. He did not play much defense in Pee Wee football. It’s just too hard at 21 years old to make a change like that.”
But could he cope with not playing another year if Whitlow, Phillips or Barker wins the No. 1 job over him?
“That’s person by person. He’s one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever been around,” Lorenzen said. “He wants to win and be the quarterback. All quarterbacks do. But a lot of backup quarterbacks realize they are getting school paid for, he’s there with his friends on a team and Pat could be part of teams that turn UK football around. There’s a lot to be said for that. On the opposite side, he could say I’ve given this long enough and I want to go where I can play. Everybody’s different.”
Lorenzen said the “mental maturity” is different for every player and for some, it takes longer.
“Everybody grows up at a different time mentally,” Lorenzen said. “Physically, the kid is a beast. But it’s really different playing quarterback in the SEC compared to the Big Ten, ACC or American whatever. This is where the cream is.”
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 offensive coordinator Neal Brown knows UK fans are frustrated with the team’s lack of productivity this year. Kentucky averaged 20.5 points per game — three more than last year — and 341 yards per game — or about 25 more per game than last year.
But Brown, and UK fans, envisioned a lot more this year, and in the future.
“I think we were patchwork at times. I think we were patchwork. I think we were trying to cover up some things,” Brown said after Saturday’s loss to Tennessee to end a 2-10 season. “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. We didn’t have an effort issue at all this year. We’re just – we’re real thin at offensive line. We’re real thin and those guys are banged up and it showed – showed big tonight.
“And then we need playmakers. We need more guys that can make plays in space.”