UK Football

Special guests, including family of boy killed near stadium, are key part of Cats’ bowl trip

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Marco Shemwell’s death, aftermath

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Kentucky has several special guests with it in Florida this week as it prepares for the Citrus Bowl.

The family of Marco Shemwell, the 4-year-old boy who was struck and killed shortly after attending the UK-Murray State game, arrived on a plane with Kentucky staff members on Saturday, an official confirmed to the Herald-Leader.

Kentucky’s players and Coach Mark Stoops served as honorary pall bearers at the boy’s funeral.

The coaches and players have discussed how much Shemwell’s story impacted them. A UK Children’s Hospital nurse that cared for Marco also recently was surprised with a trip to the bowl.

“I’m glad we played good for Marco and the Shemwell family,” Stoops said after UK’s win over Mississippi State. “I’m so glad that we played well in honor of him and that family.”

Cats running back Benny Snell wrote “RIP Marco” on his wrist before the game and called the entire situation “heartbreaking.

“This team, we played for him,” Snell said the next week. “We played for that family. For his life to be so short — him just wanting to see a football game for the first time and enjoy life. And just thinking about it, it just makes me so sad.”

Another boy who has had a big impact on the Cats this season, Luke Klausing, has been at all of the bowl practices in Orlando with the team. Josh Allen stopped to mess with him in between drills.

Senior cornerback Derrick Baity played catch with the 11-year-old from Louisville during Saturday’s practice.

Klausing, who has battled cystic fibrosis most of his life, was “recruited” to play for UK at the beginning of the season. He’s been a part of almost all of the Cats’ activities.

“He’s like our little brother, a teammate, always makes our days better when Luke is here,” linebacker Kash Daniel said this week. “He always has a smile on his face and just bringing that positive vibe, that positive energy to the team. It’s really cool to have him around. We’re glad to have him and his family with us.”

Kentucky also has a special message that it has carried with it from Lexington in the form of a banner from the UK Children’s Hospital that tight end C.J. Conrad visited regularly.

It’s hanging up in the Cats’ Orlando hotel.

Conrad said: “All the kids I was visiting through the weeks of the season signed it and that meant a lot to me.”

‘That’s what sets him apart’

Kentucky center Drake Jackson is an offensive line video junkie.

“I know a lot of the players and the units and it’s kind of interesting to see how each team is coached up and how offensive lines differ from ours and other schools, conference by conference,” he explained of his viewing habits.

So suffice it to say Jackson is a bit of an expert on offensive lines. And the UK sophomore can explain exactly what made teammate Bunchy Stallings a first-team All-American this season.

“You watch our film and you see Bunchy is blocking a defensive lineman 20 yards down the field and just straining to stay between his guy and the ball carried and you don’t see that anywhere else in the country,” Jackson said of the senior right guard.

“He’s the one guy that’s always 20 yards down the field trying to finish a block. That’s what sets him apart.”

All season, Stallings gave up just one-half of a quarterback sack and totaled 170 blocks at the point of attack and had 55 knockdown blocks.

“For a big guy like that he moves around well,” offensive coordinator Eddie Gran said of Stallings. “He’s able to change direction. He can run. You can see him when he pulls, he’s got some speed and he’s got power. He uses that big rear end as leverage.”

Replacing Jordan Jones

Kentucky has a veteran defense, but there will be one true freshman in the middle of it all versus Penn State with DeAndre Square likely replacing senior weakside linebacker Jordan Jones, who was suspended for the bowl game.

Fellow true freshman Chris Oats also will be playing at both weakside and middle linebacker.

Square finished the season eighth on the team in tackles with 29, including 2.5 for a loss to go with three quarterback hurries. Oats was just behind him with 24 tackles, including three for a loss and two sacks.

And while replacing Jones’ 68 total tackles and 5.5 tackles for a loss — as well as four years of experience — will be difficult for UK, defensive coordinator Matt House likes the Cats’ options.

“They’re not as experienced but I don’t look at them as freshman right now either,” House said on Saturday of Square and Oats. “I mean, each one of them have played in all 12 ball games. They’ve grown. They’ve learned from their mistakes.

“Have they been around as (long) as Jordan? No. But at the same time, I’ve got great belief and trust in those two kids and I’m excited to watch them play.”

For his part, Square said he’s ready.

“It’s going to be hard to replace Jordan, but I’m super pumped,” he said. “I’m happy to get the chance. It’s something I’ve waited on, something I’ve practiced hard for and I’m ready to showcase my skills.”