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UK looking to youngsters in bid to upset Florida

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Jojo Kemp has rushed for a team-high 167 yards through three games of his freshman season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Jojo Kemp has rushed for a team-high 167 yards through three games of his freshman season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a few months of his arrival, Mark Stoops cobbled together one of the best recruiting classes in Kentucky football history.

Considering the talent of the group, it was clear many of the newcomers would play immediately. Few, however, could have predicted just how much of a youth movement would happen in Lexington.

Relying on so many players suiting up for the first time at the Division-I level, of course, has its pitfalls. Three games into the season, there have been plenty of growing pains. But as UK prepares for its Southeastern Conference opener and tries to end a 26-year losing streak to No. 20 Florida, there are positives too.

"They're not worried about the previous 25, 26 games (in the streak)," Stoops said. "They're not worried about last year. They don't know anything about it. They're just worried about coming out here and playing this week."

One of 14 newcomers and eight freshmen who have already played this season, Jojo Kemp fits that description. Kemp has climbed his way to the top of the UK depth chart alongside senior Raymond Sanders, leading the team with 167 rushing yards on just 18 carries.

Kemp and his fellow newcomers have accounted for 798 of UK's 1,111 yards from scrimmage and will have to play a role in order for the Cats to pull the upset at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium. The good news is the youngsters are too inexperienced to know they're not supposed to do just that and view the game as just another on the schedule.

Kemp - a native of DeLand, Fla. - is treating the game that way even though he'll be taking on the team for which he grew up rooting.

"I know they're Florida," Kemp said. "I know it's where I came from. I'm kind of practicing and treating them like any other game. I'm going to treat it like I treated Louisville."

Kemp rushed for 80 yards on just five second-half carries against the Cardinals, but Florida likely presents an even stiffer test. The Gators are second nationally in total defense, allowing just 212.3 yards per game, and have limited opponents to just 55.3 yards rushing per game, the lowest total in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

"Here's the deal, I've known (Florida head coach) Will (Muschamp) for a while," offensive coordinator Neal Brown. "His defenses look the same year in and year out. They're aggressive, they're fundamentally sound and they fly to the football. They're really good. I can describe on a bunch of different ways, but they're as good or better than anybody in the country."

Florida will be without star defensive tackle Dominique Easley - who tore his ACL and meniscus this week in practice - but the Gators are deep enough to cope with his absence.

"I see a team that wants to man up and beat you," quarterback Maxwell Smith said. "They don't even really care if they know what you're doing. They're just going to say, 'We're better than you, we're going to line up an we're going to beat you.' Florida's always been a very fast team and it's a very good defense."

Offensively, Florida is in more of a state of flux.

Starting quarterback Jeff Driskel went down with a season-ending injury of his own in last weekend's win over Tennessee, thrusting redshirt sophomore Tyler Murphy into action. Driskel was a threat in the running game, but Murphy is an even better athlete. He rushed for 84 yards and a touchdown in the first extended action of his college career.

"Very athletic, makes plays with his feet," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He's got a strong, strong arm. He's a good player, good quarterback."

On the other side of the ball, UK will use some combination of Smith and Jalen Whitlow at quarterback. The two sophomores are listed together at No. 1 and have shared reps in practice once again. Smith, after sustaining a shoulder injury two Saturdays ago, has returned to his throwing regimen this week and appeared strong.

"He's thrown the ball well," Brown said Wednesday. "I think the week down did him well. No signs, no signs of the injury to me. Yesterday he was almost perfect in yesterday's practice."

Last season, Smith was forced by injury to miss UK's 38-0 loss at Florida and is aware of the long losing streak against the Gators. Before this week, the same could not be said about some of his younger teammates.

Kemp didn't learn of the drought until a friend mentioned it on Facebook earlier this week. He quickly shouted for fellow Jeff Badet to look, and the freshman wide receiver didn't know about it either.

That's perfectly fine with Stoops, because the main thing he wants his team thinking about is improving.

"I think since we've really been concentrating on that as the season has progressed, I thought we've gotten better," Stoops said. "So we're really worried about ourselves, this team and this week. We really don't worry too much about that streak, but like I told the team: If they want to use it as motivation, go right ahead, but let's not lose sight of the fact that we need to get better, control today and get better today."

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