The questions came fast and furious, and then there was a pause.
A reporter from Florida asked whether the current Kentucky players are aware of the Cats’ 29-game losing streak against Florida.
“Umm,” Jojo Kemp said. “Yeah.”
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“What is that, like 29 years?”
Kemp, a DeLand, Fla., native, admitted it’s a little bit tougher for him.
“I know half of the team,” he said of the Gators. “I grew up with some of the players that are on the team. My friends back home, but I’m a Kentucky native now. That’s where my heart’s at. I came here for a reason.”
The last two games have been especially painful for Kemp and company, though, and that came up many times at Southeastern Conference Media Days, too.
There was the close-but-not-close-enough 14-9 loss to the Gators at Commonwealth Stadium last season. And the 36-30 loss in three overtimes at the Swamp the season before.
“We’re right there,” Kemp said. “You can see the last year’s game and the year before that. We were right there. Little mistakes, immature mistakes that hindered us from winning those close games.”
This year’s Florida game has a specific sense of urgency for Kemp, who gets to play in his home state one last time.
“Things happen for a reason, so being able my senior year playing against the Gators at the Swamp can’t be any better,” the running back said.
Perhaps the Cats can’t be hitting the Gators at a better time, either.
Just one week into a new season, UK will be catching a Florida team that is still figuring some things out.
Sure, the Gators are the defending SEC East champions, but they lost their final three games of the season and the offense struggled without quarterback Will Grier, who had to sit after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
Florida, which returns 11 starters combined, finished 13th in the league in rushing offense, 12th in total offense and 11th in scoring offense.
Grier has transferred, and Florida has four new players vying for the starting quarterback job — two transfers and two freshmen.
Many of the Gators’ top defensive players have moved on, including Vernon Hargreaves, Jonathan Bullard, Keanu Neal and Antonio Morrison.
“We’re going to have to count on some of the new names to come in there and give us some valuable time,” second-year coach Jim McElwain said last week.
He joked that the happiest people in Gainesville this fall will be the guys who sell the programs around the stadium.
“There’s a whole bunch of new jerseys out there,” he said. “And that will be a lot of fun for people to figure out who they are.”
Kentucky was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East (behind Florida) by the league’s media, and after two straight 5-7 seasons, the Cats are looking to find a breakthrough victory.
First, there’s the seemingly must-win game against Southern Miss and fired UK offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson on Sept. 3, and then the trip to Gainesville the next week for a game already slated as the SEC Game of the Week.
What would it mean to end that Florida streak?
“It’s going to mean a lot,” junior linebacker Courtney Love said. “It’s going to give us the momentum we need to create a dynasty at Kentucky.”
Kemp didn’t have to pause when he was asked the same question. It was less about Florida and more about the future of UK.
“It would mean a lot for us, for me, to get my team to a bowl game or a championship this year,” he replied. “If we do that, I’m gonna be happy.”
A little extra mojo from Jojo
I’m not sure anyone had as much fun at SEC Media Days as Kemp. The senior danced (The Sprinkler and The Dab) in the television room. In the huge print room, he took a group selfie with reporters before sitting down for 25 minutes of interviews.
The running back showed off his UK-blue suit coupled nicely with a floral print bow tie that he learned to tie (with a little help from UK media relations guru Tony Neely) from watching a YouTube video a few minutes before.
When asked about his new threads, Kemp got real personal real quick with the table of reporters: “Kentucky Derby, you know. I came here to talk Derby to you guys. That’s why I have a look that matched with the words that were coming out of my mouth.”
On finally being a senior at Kentucky: “Yeah. Time flies. I’ve got hair on my chin now. Time is flying.”
On the new Pokémon Go craze and whether it’s hooked him yet: “I’m not trying to walk around trying to find Pokémon. I’m not going to walk around here trying to find Pokémon up in here.”
On how he got the name Jojo: “Always (been) Jojo. My old man give me the reason because I’m the third. I’m thinking my dad Joe says ‘I’m No. 2, so Jojo.’ I don’t know.”
And the natural follow-up on whether there will be any Jojojos anytime soon. “Nah. I might show you a little mojo, though.”
My favorite exchange, though, might have been when he was asked to detail who Jojo Kemp is off the field. What are you really like, Jojo? “Handsome young man,” he flashed a big 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 came a long way and just being in this position is an awesome feeling and I’m going to soak (up) every last minute of it and have fun doing it.”
‘Be a part of history’
Two of the players featured in Kentucky’s 2016 “Make A Stand” poster that paid homage to the four UK players who integrated Southeastern Conference football in the late 1960s were also a part of last week’s Media Days festivities.
Kemp and Love said it was an honor to meet two of those players, Nate Northington and Wilbur Hackett, two weeks ago when the poster was unveiled to the team.
“Those guys paved the way for the African-Americans to play in this league,” Love said. “If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t be in front of you guys today. So that was just a huge blessing. It’s an honor to talk about them.”
The poster is modeled after a statue that honors the four UK players who integrated the SEC, also including Greg Page and Houston Hogg.
That statue will stand in front of the new UK football practice facility and will be unveiled at a special event on Sept. 22.
Many of UK’s players weren’t aware what a prominent role their school played in SEC integration until recently, Kemp said.
“Once they explained it and give us some knowledge about it, I respected them the most, especially with what’s going on now,” the senior running back said. “It was great to be a part of something like that and it was a great thing to be a part of history.”
The Make a Stand theme of the poster, which is available at participating Kroger stores now, resonated with Love.
“That’s one thing we want to do,” he said. “We want to make a stand with everybody we have on our team. It doesn’t matter what race you are, where you come from. We all want to make Kentucky proud.”
First Amendment love?
You never know which way questions and answers are going to go at SEC Media Days. That’s kind of the beauty of the event.
So I was a little surprised when the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution came up several times. Mostly it was in reference to players on social media and players speaking out about social issues.
It was a regular topic all week.
When Florida’s McElwain was asked about social media as “a necessary evil” he replied:
“I’m kind of one of these guys that might — somewhere there was a history book, and I can’t remember — they talked something about freedom of speech,” McElwain said. “Something about that. And, you know, I’m not big on censoring, but what I’m into is big on education.”
Most coaches who were asked that question discussed the education component, trying to train players what to say and not to say on public platforms.
“Once you push send, there’s no getting it back,” Tennessee Coach Butch Jones said. “I don’t believe in just taking it away from them but … we do monitor it … because everything is a teaching tool. Everything is a learning experience.”
Several Tennessee players have spoken out on public issues in the past, and Jones was asked about that as well.
“It’s all about freedom of speech, and, you know, they are very emotional young men and they have strong beliefs in what they believe in,” Jones said..