HOOVER, Ala. – Jojo Kemp thought Kentucky football had arrived that night, Oct. 4, 2014, after he put the Wildcats on his back and rumbled for 131 yards and three touchdowns in a stunning, come-from-behind victory over South Carolina.
Fans stormed the field and danced around Kemp as an SEC Network camera zoomed in for the most memorable quote of the Mark Stoops era in Lexington.
“I came here to change the program around, and that’s what we’re doing,” Kemp said. “We’re changing the game. Why not Kentucky? Why not us?”
The next week, the Wildcats improved to 5-1 and appeared to have fast-tracked their recovery from consecutive two-win seasons. But then UK lost its final six games and failed to make a bowl game.
A similar collapse, from a 4-1 start last fall, followed. And the Cats are still waiting to punch their first postseason ticket since 2010. Kemp, now a senior, is down to his last chance to finish what he started as one of Stoops’ first high-profile recruits at Kentucky.
“Coming so close and not being able to finish, it wasn’t a good feeling,” the former 4-star running back from DeLand, Fla., said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. “We just need to get over that hump. We’re right there. And I’m confident this year that we’re actually going to do that.”
While consecutive 5-7 seasons might not seem like progress to outsiders, Kemp can feel it. The Wildcats lost last season by five points to Florida, four to Vanderbilt and three to Auburn. They led 21-0 early and were tied in the fourth quarter before falling to rival Louisville in the regular-season finale.
“In my eyes, in our eyes, (the program) is still going up,” said Kemp, who has rushed for 1,360 yards in three seasons at UK. “I know how close we were to winning those games. I know exactly what we have to do, and this year it’s all about finishing.”
That requires a toughness, both mental and physical, that Stoops’ squads didn’t have the first three seasons – including Kemp at times.
“I’ve seen Jojo grow up,” Stoops said. “He’s always had the great, fiery attitude and always had good days, but it’s about consistency and not having those setbacks. He’s had great adversity. He’s had very big highs and very low lows. That’s where I’ve seen him grow and fight through that, grow up and mature.”
Kemp has seen the same from his teammates. He can remember most of them being excited to head home in the summer between his freshman and sophomore years. They seemed eager to take an extended break from football.
But this May, when coaches cut the players loose, “guys came back in like three, four days. Guys weren’t home; guys stayed in (Lexington),” Kemp said. “It was really like nobody left; that facility was crowded. That wouldn’t have happened my first year.
“Guys don’t want that same feeling we had of coming so close and not being able to finish.”
There’s an added motivation for Kemp, who has been telling anyone who’d listen that Kentucky was on the cusp of bigger and better things since 2013. He almost single-handedly delivered the Cats to that brink as a sophomore, and now he’s ready to close the deal.
“I came here to do one specific thing, and that’s change the culture of Kentucky football,” Kemp said. And if the day comes that he helps clinch a bowl berth, and the camera zooms in again, “I have a speech ready – ready. I can’t wait. Can’t wait. I got something for you guys.”
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.