To say the University of Kentucky football team has relied on its fresh faces through the first three games would be a huge understatement. Mark Stoops’ 2013 Wildcats aren’t just relying on the newcomers, aside from a handful of veterans and the quarterback position, the new guys are making all the plays.
Fans knew Stoops’ new crop of players would work their way into the rotation in time, but I don’t think anyone anticipated the impact the newcomers have made thus far.
Stoops said he’s not force-feeding it to the first-year players, either. “We absolutely, positively need our upperclassmen skill guys to play better,” he told KSR.
But it may be too late for the veterans at certain positions, particularly at wide receiver. The four leading pass-catchers are all in their first year with the team, while freshman JoJo Kemp leads UK in rushing.
Here are ten guys who didn’t take long to make an impact in 2013, giving UK football fans even more hope for the future:
Wide Receiver, Junior (JUCO)
A late arrival to campus didn’t slow Javess Blue down one bit. Blue was expected to come in and contribute right away at wide receiver for Kentucky, and contribute right away he has. The JUCO transfer, once a Texas Tech commit under Neal Brown, leads the Wildcats in receptions (15) and receiving yards (197), and he’s one of five wide-outs to catch a touchdown pass. He ranked fifth in the SEC in receiving yards through three games, prior to UK’s bye weekend.
Blue has also been big in the return game, filling in for Demarco Robinson. He has fielded six punts for 21 yards and six kicks for 151 yards, averaging 25 yards per kickoff return with a long of 43 yards.
Following Kentucky’s home loss to Louisville, Mark Stoops called Blue a bigâ€‘play guy. “I think he’s getting better and better. He’s so new here, he missed all summer. He’s getting better. He’s definitely got the skills that we’re looking for.”
Defensive End, Junior (JUCO)
Undoubtedly the fan favorite already, on either side of the ball, Za’Darius Smith has lived up to the hype that came to Lexington with his 6-foot-6, 250-pound frame. Expectations were high for Mark Stoops’ first commit, a 2012 JUCO All-American, and he has not only met the expectations, but he has surpassed them.
The big fella from Mississippi ranks first in the conference and third in the nation in sacks per game at 1.5. His 4.5 tackles for a loss per game ranks second in the SEC and 22nd nationally. He’s also the first Kentucky Wildcat to record a sack in three consecutive games since Jeremy Jarmon in 2007.
Big Z has the perfect combination of size, strength and speed coming off the end. His motor is always running full speed, too, even during The Cat Walk when he’s going 100-percent, trying to high-five every fan in line.
Running Back, Freshman
If Za’Darius Smith is the fan favorite, JoJo Kemp isn’t far behind. The true freshman from DeLand, Florida wins over more and more Kentucky football fans every time he touches the ball. Because he averages 9.3 yards every time he touches the ball.
Kemp leads the Wildcats in rushing despite starting the season behind veterans Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George and returning sophomore Dy’shawn Mobley on the three-deep depth chart. He enters Game 4 of his freshman year as the co-No. 1 back alongside Sanders.
Cornerback, Junior (JUCO)
While most of his teammates spent the summer in the weight room, preparing for fall camp, Nate Willis’ focus was in the classroom, working his tail off to become academically eligible to play at Kentucky. It took some time but Willis did make the grade, and UK’s secondary is better because of it.
Mark Stoops said on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ conference call, “You’re starting to see him play more confidently, get in better shape, getting his legs up underneath him. We were in dire need for some junior college players in the secondary and we were able to go out and find him and I’ve been impressed with Nate. I think he’s going to be a very good player.”
Willis has two pass breakups and six tackles in his short career at UK, the only team in the SEC to not have an interception this season. But as Willis continues to improve, so will the secondary.
Wide Receiver, Freshman
Ryan Timmons still has a lot to improve when the ball isn’t in his hands, but when it is, look out. The dynamic playmaker from Frankfort is the team’s second-leading receiver with 133 yards on nine catches, but it’s what he does after catching the ball that has fans optimistic about the future.
Get him in space, and watch the defenders scramble to bring him down.
Wide Receiver, Freshman
Coming in at No. 3 on Kentucky’s receiving list is another newcomer, Jeff Badet from Orlando, Florida. Badet has six catches in the last two games for 124 yards, including a 56-yard touchdown catch against Miami. Badet caught the ball at the 30, bounced off a hit from the safety and outran the defense for the score.
JoJo Kemp, who committed to UK the same night as Badet and shares a room with him at UK, recently told reporters, “Jeff, he is the man. He is a good player. Every time he gets a chance, he is going to make plays that you won’t expect. I know he made some plays in practice that opened my eyes. I know when he gets on the field, he is going to make the best of it as well.”
Wide Receiver, Freshman
Behind Blue, Timmons and Badet on the receptions list is Alexander Montgomery, yet another fresh face at UK. He has six catches and a score through three games played and made his first start two weekends ago against Louisville.
This week Montgomery is listed behind Javess Blue at one receiver spot, but he’ll see plenty of opportunities to make a play and potentially get that second career score against the Florida Gators.
Defensive Back, Freshman
Maybe the biggest surprise in the early season is Blake McClain, the only Joker Phillips recruit on the list. McClain earned his spot at nickel back early and has drawn praise from his coaches for his versatility in the secondary.
The highly-touted Marcus McWilson was expected to be the incoming freshman defensive back to earn immediate playing time, but McClain, not McWilson, is the rookie making big plays for the Kentucky defense. He recorded seven tackles and a forced fumble in his first collegiate game and currently ranks fourth on the team in total tackles.
Defensive End, Freshman
Jason Hatcher headlined Mark Stoops’ inaugural class at Kentucky and he has shown why early on, whenever Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith free up a spot at defensive end to let him in the game. Hatcher saw plenty of snaps against Louisville as a defensive end/linebacker and his performance led Stoops to announce he plans to give him more looks in the future.
The former Trinity star currently averages three tackles per game.
A top 50 cornerback coming out of high school, Jaleel Hytchye is already seeing heavy playing time in Kentucky’s secondary, in part because there aren’t a lot of options at corner. He was running with the first team defense in fall camp and was one of six true freshmen to play in the season opener.
Never mind the lack of competition, though, Hytchye is a player the staff loves and he’s adjusting to the speed of the next level quickly. It’ll be a little longer before he’s one of the top two cornerbacks, but that day will come.
Now imagine nine of these players never suiting up for Kentucky. That’s where things were going until Mark Stoops swooped in and saved the 2013 recruiting class.
The future is bright.