By James Pennington
Ask Jojo Kemp when he showed up in Lexington, and he spares no detail.
“I’ve been here since June 4 of 2013, sir. How you doing? It’s good to meet you,” he said.
Jojo Kemp. (Photo from UK Athletics)
In the first 10 seconds of interacting with the freshman running back, one of the headliners of Mark Stoops’ first recruiting class as the Kentucky head coach, you realize Kemp is the perfect embodiment of the new wave of football around these parts. He’s concerned with details —- he didn’t to campus here a few months ago, he got to campus on June 4 and in 2013, in case you were wondering -— and he looks you in the eye to make sure you’ve heard him.
And he smiles while he’s talking to you and answering your questions, because he’s excited to be in Lexington standing in front of cameras wearing a Kentucky blue jersey with his name and number on the back. He’s excited to tell you about what’s happening and — more importantly, he’ll have you know -— what’s about to happen.
Kemp’s approach, he said, seems to reflect that of his coaching staff. He’s a freshman, new to college football and certainly new to the specific challenge of the Southeastern Conference, and he knows it. To expect immediate results of significance would not fall in line with Kemp’s mantra: “Stay humble.”
“What I expect for myself right now: I’m just expecting to stay back and get taught the whole offense,” he said. “I’m letting the other guys, the older guys, perform and letting them teach me, and when it’s my time to do the same, I’m going to do my best and do what the coaches ask me to do. If it’s now or whenever, I’m going to be coachable. That’s the main point is to be coachable.”
Staying humble is important, Kemp said, because the class of which he is a member not only represents a revolution in recruiting prowess, most of its members are from places far away enough that they don’t realize how quickly and how drastically the culture has changed without a single game being played.
The class has a few favorite sons who know first-hand what the program has seen in years past -— defensive lineman Jason Hatcher is from Louisville, D-lineman Jacob Hyde is from Manchester and wide receiver Ryan Timmons is from Frankfort, and those three were some of the biggest gets in the class -— and know that instead of buying in to a product, these freshmen all bought in to a theory. The rest, like Kemp of DeLand, Fla., may not have seen it as directly. Stoops and his staff sat in living rooms with sketches, hoping to find their invention’s first fabricators.
“I’m just very happy because not a lot of guys can say that when the coaches came into their living room, they gave them a plan about what was going to happen and then those things actually happened that way,” Hatcher said. “Everything the coaches told me has come to pass so far.”
The coaches were blunt with Hatcher about the short term, he said.
“We’re going to turn this program around. There’s going to be a lot of hype this season, but it’s not going to be easy,” Hatcher said, paraphrasing the coaches’ living-room talking points with the tone and cadence as if he were reciting it at a poetry slam. “We’re going to do a lot of work and spend a lot of days in the summertime when you get up at 5 o’clock and you don’t get back to the room until 7 or 8, and that happened. They were like, ‘We’re going to get these type of guys.’ It’s happening with the 14 guys and the other guys that came in to my class and some of the J.C. guys. It’s happening.”
Another part of the transformation is in training, and standing in front of the biggest 18- and 19-year-olds in Lexington, you can tell the training is trending up. Hatcher said he showed up in June at 244 pounds, and he’s now at 256, but he doesn’t feel like he’s carrying any extra weight, and he’s actually running faster now than he was then.
Hatcher also warned that he’s staying humble, because such radical transformations don’t take full form at finger-snap speed -— and in football, eight months and no games is surely the snap of a finger. Instead, Hatcher’s starting point is to set himself not from the rest of the conference or the country, but from other freshmen.
“I wake up each morning saying, ‘OK, what am I going to do to set myself apart from everybody else? What am I doing that every other freshman in the conference and in the country isn’t doing?’ I feel like I’ve got to do stuff that nobody else is doing,” he said.
If he and his fellow classmates can set themselves apart from other freshmen, Hatcher said that sets them up to do so as sophomores and juniors and seniors, leading to the loftier long-term goals Stoops’ recruiting touch suggests are possible.
The attention to detail and eagerness to get going around Stoops’ program was evident at Monday’s media day -— even down to the annual team photo that, instead of the typical drill that runs well over schedule, finished about 20 minutes early -— and freshmen like Kemp and Hatcher reflected it readily. And just like Kemp, Hatcher wanted to tell you all about it.
“I can’t speak on the things in the past, but I know that what I’m seeing here isn’t what I’m used to seeing here, you know what I mean? Being that I’m from Louisville, I haven’t had a chance to see Lexington that much,” Hatcher said. “But since I’ve been here, I’ve felt a significant change.”
You can see more from UK football media day, including Mark Stoops’ entire news conference on KyForward UK Sports Notebook Tumblr.