The hair on his chin gets a deliberate stroking as Jojo Kemp ponders the question.
“Time flies,” the running back says in his best old philosopher voice. “I’ve got hair on my chin now. Time is flying.”
Sure, time flies, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that Kemp was front and center in a live, nationally televised interview uttering what have now become famous words.
“I came here to change the program around,” Kemp said after having a huge hand in UK’s 45-38 win over South Carolina in 2014 at Commonwealth Stadium.
“And that’s what we’re doing. We’re changing the game. Why not Kentucky? Why not us?”
Those words, that sentiment, have taken on a much greater sense of urgency for the old man among the Kentucky running backs. This is Kemp’s last season to do what he set out to do, to change the program from a Southeastern Conference basement dweller to a rising star.
“I’m not going to stop until it’s done,” promised Kemp, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior from DeLand, Fla. “I really want this. … The only reason I came here was to do something special, to change the culture, so I’m not going to stop putting that work in until I actually get that done.”
It’s that work ethic, that commitment, that has caught the eye of new running backs coach Eddie Gran.
“I like his toughness,” the offensive coordinator said of Kemp. “He’s a perfectionist. He really wants to do everything right. So you have a chance. You know you’re gonna get everything from him.”
But if he’s perfectly honest, Gran wasn’t so sure what he was getting in Kemp when the coach arrived this offseason from Cincinnati.
His first few days of camp, the offensive coordinator seemed to be at a bit of a personality impasse with Kemp.
Apparently, Kemp — never one to miss an opportunity to entertain — hadn’t been taking things as seriously as Gran wanted on that day.
“Evolution is interesting with Jojo because he’s got to learn — you’ve got to know when to turn it on and turn it off in terms of when you’re going to have fun,” Gran said in early August. “Jojo, as you know, he likes to have fun and laugh. … He and I are just kind of getting to know each other of when he needs to be like that and not be like that.”
The two apparently have gotten better acquainted in the weeks that followed, with Kemp explaining that his ever-present smile irked his position coach early on.
“I always knew Coach Gran had a great sense of humor, I just had to pull it out of him,” Kemp said laughing. “That’s all it is.”
How exactly does one pull a sense of humor out of his stern-faced, veteran coach?
“Keep poking him and he’ll be good,” Kemp laughed. “Just messing with him when the play’s over or after practice pull on his shirt a little bit. He’s trying to get uptight, but he’s a great coach.”
Maybe it’s the poking or the shirt-pulling, or maybe it’s just that Gran has learned Kemp is quite serious about being a leader for the offense and bringing about that change he so publicly touted in 2014.
The last two years, Kemp said he was content to be a leader by example, just play as well as he could and as hard as he could when his name was called.
He’s upped the ante this season. It’s his final season at Kentucky, and he’s all in.
“This year’s Jojo is a more vocal leader,” Kemp said. “I’m pulling guys to the side, talking to them. Younger guys that’s coming in, giving them the expectations that we have here.”
His head coach has definitely seen a different Kemp, who had 98 carries for 555 yards and tied for a team high with six touchdowns last season.
“I haven’t seen the highs and the lows,” Stoops said of Kemp’s change. “He’s always had the great fiery attitude and always had good days, but it’s about consistency and it’s about not having those setbacks. He’s had great adversity. He’s had very big highs and he’s had very low lows. That comes with life.
“That’s where I’ve seen him grow and fight through that, grow up and mature, that things are not always gonna be perfect.”
Kemp’s maturity has landed him atop the running back depth chart with star Boom Williams. They could be a dangerous one-two punch starting Saturday against Southern Miss.
“He’s really trying,” Gran said of Kemp. “He probably has been the most consistent back throughout this camp. He’s doing everything that we’re asking him to do, and he’s understanding when to turn it on and turn it off, and that’s what I asked him to do and he did it.”
But can Kemp really ever turn it off? Probably not.
Recently, when asked to describe this new and improved Jojo Kemp, the running back chuckled.
“Handsome young man,” he said, pausing to grin. “A guy who likes to have fun and smile. A guy who works hard and is going to have fun and be happy while doing it.
“I’ve come a long way, and just being in this position is an awesome feeling, and I’m going to soak every last minute of it and have fun doing it.”
Ex-Cat Hatcher finds landing spot
Former Kentucky defensive back Jason Hatcher, who was dismissed from the program after a marijuana trafficking charge in Franklin County, has moved on to West Georgia. The former Louisville Trinity star also tweeted a picture of field preparations at the Division II school. The Wolves went 12-2 last season.
“It’s been a long time coming and I can’t wait to put on,” Hatcher tweeted. “God got me!!”
Former Louisville quarterback Will Gardner also is on the opening day roster for the Wolves, who open their season at 2 p.m. Saturday against Catawba.
Southern Miss at Kentucky
7:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU)