Kentucky's Jojo Kemp back on comfortable footing after painful freshman season

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 26, 2014 

  • Kentucky at Louisville

    When: Noon Saturday

    TV: ESPN2

    Records: Louisville 8-3 (5-3 ACC); Kentucky 5-6 (2-6 SEC)

    Series: Kentucky leads 14-12

    Line: Louisville by 12½

A funny quip by his coach last season was a little too close to reality for Jojo Kemp.

Midway through fall camp, Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops bragged about his true freshman running back's zeal in a team drill.

"I thought he was going to pull a knife out of his sock and stab somebody," Stoops joked.

To Kemp, it certainly felt like he had sharp objects stored in his socks.

"It was like someone was taking a knife and just stabbing it in my ankles," Kemp said. "It was really uncomfortable."

Pain that plagued him throughout his senior year of high school in Florida followed him to Lexington and got progressively worse as last season went on.

"Every time I'd make the cuts in practice, I was just feeling that pain," he said.

"At the end of practices and games, my ankle would swell up and I'd have to have ice on it or put treatment on it."

Bone spurs had developed in both ankles.

"They couldn't put me through surgery during the season because they needed me out there," the 5-foot-10, 194-pound running back said.

The coaches did what they could to make it less painful to play for Kemp, who led the Cats in rushing last season with 100 carries for 482 yards and three touchdowns.

"You had to design plays for him to get to the perimeter because he couldn't stick his foot in the ground. It hurt that bad," running backs coach Chad Scott said.

Almost everything UK ran for him late in the season was designed to get him to the outside so he never had to make a cut.

"He could just run and he didn't have to make that dynamic, one-foot cut and change directions," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said.

It started to become apparent how difficult the injury was for Kemp after the Louisville game, Brown said. The pain was so bad the freshman had surgery just three days after the season ended.

"He really had to use two feet to make a cut," Brown said. "So if he was moving left and he wanted to make a dynamic cut, he had to chop-chop. Now, with two healthy feet, he's able to put one foot in the ground and change direction. That's the biggest difference."

The problem hadn't been as bad in high school, when he ran 255 times for 1,469 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior season.

But it was easier in high school when he didn't have to make cuts to get past less-athletic defenders.

"I was outrunning people," Kemp said. "So when you come to the SEC, you have to make dynamic cuts to get up the field for 4 or 5 yards, so everything's not going to be a home run every time."

Kemp's carries dwindled last season because of the discomfort.

After double-digit carries in four straight games in the middle of the season, he had only 20 carries total in final three games.

"Last year a lot of people didn't understand the things he was going through," Scott said. "He was hurting all season long and as the season went on, he was hurting worse."

Since the surgery, Kemp and his coaches have noticed a "tremendous difference," Scott said.

"I feel good," Kemp said. "I'm coming out of my cuts a lot faster and I'm just going out there having fun."

Every play in the playbook is open to Kemp now.

And some extra rest during fall camp as he nursed a pulled hamstring means he's probably the freshest UK running back heading into the season opener.

"I feel light on my feet," he said. "I'm feeling good. I can make the cuts I need to make to get up field or get a touchdown if I need to. It just feels great."


• After Tuesday's practice, Stoops and his staff were in good moods, with the head coach even addressing the media on his off day from that task.

"Felt good about the energy," he said. "Guys are starting to lock in and execute well. So overall, very good practice."

Stoops mentioned that yet another receiver, this time T.V. Williams, was hit in the eye with a tennis ball on the JUGS machine like teammate Jeff Badet, who is going to sit out the first two games after being hit in the eye by a ball.

When asked if the coaches are now requiring helmets for players on those machines, Stoops said: "Yes. Absolutely. Helmets and visors."

He said when trainers told him about Williams' injury, he jokingly told them to get rid of the machines altogether. Williams is fine, though, and will play.

• Stoops was asked about a CBS Sports story that rated all head coaches as players and that he came in No. 63, far behind brother Bob Stoops, Oklahoma coach, at 15.

"That's not right; that's not right," the younger Stoops protested. "That's not right at all."

Later he noted that he had a shortened career. Stoops earned the starting strong safety job as a junior when Iowa was a pre-season No. 1, which he called his "claim to fame.

"But it only lasted about four or five weeks," he said. "I got injured there halfway through that junior year. And we did lose the opener. We lost the opener at Hawaii. So that wasn't good."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog:

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