Jojo Kemp seemed ready to write the TaxSlayer Bowl a personal note of gratitude.
“I’d like to thank the TaxSlayer Bowl for giving us the invite,” the Kentucky running back said. “They were probably thinking of me.”
Well, Kemp and the 13 other UK players from the state of Florida who will get to go back home for the holidays and then spend an extra bonus week in the Sunshine State preparing for the Dec. 31 bowl game against Georgia Tech.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said Kemp, who grew up a little more than an hour away in DeLand. “I feel great. I’m in heaven right now. You don’t even understand.”
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The celestial feelings ran through the team this weekend as the players learned their bowl destination on Sunday. Some found out via a position group text exchange. Others heard the news on social media.
All of them were “ecstatic,” said senior defensive back Blake McClain, a Winter Park, Fla., native.
“That’s the word I’m going to use right there,” he said. “Ecstatic and blessed. I haven’t been to a bowl game in four years and we haven’t been to a game in six, so great opportunity.”
Also, a great opportunity to be coat free for a few days.
“When we heard officially, it was like, ‘Dang. That’s love. Warm weather,’” McClain said.
Other Kentucky players from Florida include defensive backs Marcus Walker (Lake Wales), Kendall Randolph (Tallahassee), Derrick Baity (Tampa) and Chris Westry (Orange Park), linebacker Nico Firios (Longwood), defensive end Alvonte Bell (Miramar), offensive linemen Nick Haynes (Niceville) and Ramsey Meyers (Orange Park), wide receivers Jeff Badet (Orlando), Garrett Johnson (Winter Garden), Alexander Montgomery (Weston) and punter Bryan Kirshe (Sarasota).
While acknowledging that a bowl game in the talent-rich state of Florida is helpful for recruiting, head coach Mark Stoops said he was most excited about what this trip means for those players from the Sunshine State.
“Excited for our players that are from Florida, for them and their families,” he said.
The ticket requests already have been rolling in, McClain and Kemp said. Each player is allotted six tickets, but “hopefully that’ll go up a bit,” Kemp said.
“Everybody’s asked about tickets,” McClain said. “I’m going to need about 20.”
Maybe C.J. Conrad, an Ohio player, could help a Florida guy out? Probably not, but he is happy for them.
“They’re very excited,” he said of his teammates from Florida. “We’ve got a lot of guys from Ohio on the team and up north, so it’s exciting to see these guys and how excited they get and their family gets to see them play in their home state. I’m excited for them.”
As happy as he is for the circumstances: being a senior playing in his last game in a bowl in front of friends and family, Kemp was all about the bigger picture.
“This is what we’ve been working so hard for,” he said. “I wanted to see the change in the program, to see us take that step forward. It’s an awesome feeling. You can tell everybody’s excited.”
‘All recruiting right now’
There was the impromptu celebration with fans in front of the new football training facility after the win over Louisville.
There was a celebratory glass of bourbon for Stoops later that night.
But those were the only non-scheduled parts of his week. Less than 24 hours after the regular season finale, Stoops and Kentucky’s coaches immediately went on the road to recruit.
“It’s all recruiting right now,” he said, noting that UK had 16 recruits on campus this weekend. “We only have two weeks to get in front of kids in December, so we’ll do that and we’ll be recruiting for the most part these two weeks and then when we get back this weekend, we’ll start our bowl preparation.”
The original thinking was that the 2017 recruiting class would not be a full class because of the large numbers in the past couple of classes, but some earlier team attrition likely will put UK’s class in the 20-24 player range. The current known commits are at 15.
Still on Stoops’ wish list? Offensive linemen, defensive linemen, a couple of defensive backs and linebackers. But he didn’t limit it to those position groups.
“We’ll end up recruiting a bunch,” he said. “We’re not going to — we’re going to keep on trying to get them in the boat.”
There’s also the work to keep current commits in the boat at this time of year, too.
“We’ve always got to hold everybody we have,” Stoops said. “That’s always an issue, and nobody’s going to stop recruiting. So we’ll continue to try to hold everybody we have committed and continue to get some other positions.”
His plan is still to recruit within a six-hour radius of campus with a heavy emphasis on Ohio players, but he noted that there will be more than a few supplemental players from Florida, where Kentucky will play in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Dec. 31 against Georgia Tech. UK has quite a few coaches on staff with experience recruiting that state as well, and they’ve had some success there.
Other news and notes
As previously reported, quarterback Drew Barker’s back surgery went well the week of the Louisville game and Stoops said the sophomore will join the team for the bowl.
“He’ll travel and he’ll participate as best he can with meetings and helping Stephen (Johnson) and the other quarterbacks, so we’ll continue to work with him with rehab and things like that,” Stoops said. “It will be business as usual for him.”
▪ Safety Darius West, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament before the season, had a minor setback with his knee and is still going through rehab, so he won’t be able to participate in the 15 or so extra bowl practices as the staff had hoped, Stoops said.
▪ The coach was asked about his plans to extend contracts for the coaching staff. He said: “This is the time of year where there’s always some interest and it happens, and we’ll continue to work hard at keeping this staff.
“I do feel very comfortable with this group. So I’d like to keep it intact as best we can.”
Kentucky vs. Georgia Tech
When: 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 31
Where: EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Fla.
Records: UK 7-5, Ga. Tech 8-4