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- Video: UK TV interviews Julius Randle and Dominique Hawkins prior to the matchup with Baylor
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 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.”
Matt Elam has received a lot of attention because of the recruiting interest he’s received not only from Kentucky and Louisville, but also from Alabama and Notre Dame. The 370-pound John Hardin defensive tackle has had those four schools at the top of his recruiting list — with Alabama and Kentucky the perceived leaders — for several weeks now.
However, now there’s another reason to pay attention to Elam — he’s been named the Paul Horning Award winner by the Louisville Quarterback Club and will be officially honored Dec. 17 in Louisville. The award goes to the state’s top player.
Many expected Conner quarterback Drew Barker, who has signed with Kentucky and will enroll in January, to win the award and he could still be named Mr. Football by Kentucky media members. However, this time the lineman beat the quarterback to win the Hornung Award.
Elam, a five-star prospect on some recruiting lists, posted on Twitter that he was “blessed” to win the award.
Still, where he will play his college football will remain the big news. He had an in-home visit with the Kentucky coaching staff over the weekend and posted a picture of him with all the UK coaches on Twitter. Notre Dame is coming for a visit this week. He recently got back from an unofficial visit to Alabama.
Barker is perhaps UK’s biggest recruiter — even more than offensive coordinator Neal Brown who is the coach assigned to Elam’s recruiting — and the two in-state stars have become close friends. They’ll both make official visits to UK Dec. 13 along with most of the other commits in UK’s 2014 recruiting class. Elam is also scheduled to make an official visit to Alabama in December.
Barker, who picked UK over South Carolina, has been confident for months that Elam, who dislocated the patella in his left knee late in the season but does not need surgery, will pick Kentucky when he makes his announcement on Jan. 4 at the Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio.
“A lot of people are getting nervous. That’s just what Matt wants,” Barker said. “He wants everybody on their toes. That’s why he does the stuff he does on social media. He loves having fun. He has everybody in the position he wants. But I am not one wavering. He’s coming to Kentucky.
“I talk to him three or four times a week. He’s a great guy and good person. I know everybody in the recruiting world is saying his recruiting is turing to Alabama. That is exactly what Matt wants to do, get everybody up in the air on where he’s going. I am still going with UK. I have a good feeling about him. He will be with all us commits Dec. 13-15 and that’s going to be a big weekend. But I still say he winds up at Kentucky.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
For about 40 years Mel Page has been working on a book about his brother, former University of Kentucky football player Greg Page.
“I am 62 now and began working on it when I was in high school and he got injured,” said Mel Page. “My story is more of a small town guy growing up in eastern Kentucky (Middlesboro) affiliated with coal mining and how he wanted to really play sports with his white friends. In grade school, he played all the sports except football. His freshman year — before integration — he wanted to play football so bad he went to Minnesota to live and play.
“There are particulars about that and when they integrated in Middlesboro the next year and he came back to play football. He not only excelled in football, but also basketball. My story starts then and goes until he was hurt. We’ve even got something in the book about watching the historic game between Ole Miss and Kentucky together.”
Greg Page, a defensive end, and Nate Northington, were the first African-American players to play football at Kentucky — and in the Southeastern Conference. Freshmen were not allowed to play in 1966, so they practiced with the team waiting for the 1967 season. However, during a preseason practice, Page was hurt during a pursuit drill.
Greg Page died 38 days later from the neck injury. The next day Northington became the first African-American to play in an SEC football game in a home loss to Ole Miss. A few weeks later Northington left UK for personal reasons and left behind Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg, two freshman African-American players who came to UK because of Greg Page and Northington.
A group in Middlesboro started a scholarship in Greg Page’s honor after his death.
“One year it would go to a black student, the next year to a white student,” Mel Page, who lives in Memphis now, said. “I hope that is still going on. I would like the proceeds from my book to go to that. I would like to be able to help others maybe sports or something on that nature in college if that is their dream like it was Greg’s.”
A group of former Kentucky lettermen who played with Page and Northington — headed by Louisville’s Paul Karem — has been working with UK to have some special recognition for their four teammates who helped break the SEC color barrier almost 50 years ago. Karem has met with UK athletics director Mitch Barnhart and feels “significant progress” has been made for overdue recognition for the four and what UK did to help integrate the SEC (Hackett later became the first African-American captain of any SEC team).
“If that happens, it would mean a lot to my family and to our city of Middlesboro,” Mel Page said. “A lot of people have wondered for years why there was no more recognition. Everybody in Middlesboro always thought Greg was the first (African-American) to sign with Kentucky. My story has information about where he or Nate, who I am now good friends with, signed first.
“Greg may have been the first one recruited, but his ACT score was not that high and they were waiting on test score information. A lot of people don’t know he put in a request to play at Oklahoma. There’s a lot of stuff not everybody knows. But we, the family, would be very pleased if something does happen to honor all of them. Only good could come out of it for everybody.”
Mel Page, like Karem and other former UK players, is a bit befuddled why this story has “slipped through the cracks” for so many years. There has been some national recognition for the four who helped integrate the SEC, but little local attention paid to it.
“I try to be very faithful person. My life is centered around the Lord and him doing his thing. I don’t know why this not out there for more people to know,” Mel Page said.
Nate Northington, who still lives in Louisville, has also written his life story about those times — Mel Page says it is just a “miraculous” coincidence both worked on books and completed them about the same time — and Mel Page hopes that brings more attention to what happened at UK in 1966 to 1970.
“My story has no negative stuff in it from a racial perspective,” Mel Page said. “Quite frankly, Greg never mentioned any of that to us. He enjoyed the players and people he was around. Nate sent me a copy of his story (“Still Running: The Autobiography of Kentucky’s Nate Northington, the First African American Football Player in the Southeastern Conference”) and there are not any kind of racial overtones in that, either. Some things were out there printed that Greg’s injury was the result of some people intentionally trying to hurt him, but that just was not true.”
Mel Page was a pioneer, too. He was the first African-American to play four years on scholarship at Tennessee-Martin where he played basketball. Freddie Hogg, Houston Hogg’s brother, was there before Mel Page, but played only one year.
Mel Page’s roommate in college was Leonard Hamilton, the former UK basketball assistant coach under Joe Hall and now the head coach at Florida State. “He was really a good player,” Mel Page said.
Another famous coach, Pat Summitt, also was at UT-Martin when Mel Page was. She went on to become the benchmark for women’s coaches at Tennessee. “I’ve also remained close friends with her,” Mel Page said.
By RENE CORNETTE
By LARRY VAUGHT
It’s sometimes understandable when a college athlete makes a stupid statement on social media. But when a coach does it, there’s no excuse other than maybe a lack of intelligence.
And one certainly wouldn’t think Louisville assistant football coach Clint Hurrt would be that foolish after his recent woes with the NCAA. But yet on Monday, Hurtt showed the maturity of someone in junior high with this post on his Facebook account.
“Alright I had some idiot Kentucky fan say to me we need to get ready for the Wildcats because their young players got better because they play in the SEC. I said correction you don’t play in the SEC you just participate. You only play when you actually WIN.”
Not surprisingly, Hurtt deleted the post a few hours later … after someone with more intelligence at Louisville obviously got through to him. Again, just no excuse for a coach being that immature and foolish.
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.