Winding Road Rewarding for UK Seniors

It was four years ago that a group of young men signed with Kentucky to become part of Mark Stoops’ first recruiting class. Since then, they’ve taken divergent paths.

Some redshirted, a year as Wildcats still ahead of them. Some were junior-college transfers who have already completed their eligibility. Some moved on to continue their careers elsewhere.

Six, however, will participate in Senior Day on Saturday. And what Jojo Kemp, Blake McClain, Marcus McWilson, Ryan Timmons, Ramsey Meyers and Alex Montgomery lack in numbers, they make up for with single-minded dedication to the goal they set when they originally signed.

“That was the reason why I came to Kentucky: to come here and have the opportunity to change the culture and change the program around,” Kemp said.

There was a time not long ago it seemed their work would go for naught. Sitting at 0-2 with negativity swirling to start the 2016 season, times were dark. Those six seniors, as well as the eight others who have joined their class through redshirt and transfer, never wavered.

“The seniors have been very solid,” Stoops said. “They are great young men to work with. They have been very good leaders. Again, I said it during the tough times this season, I am not for sure we would have grown if we didn’t have strong seniors. There are not very many of them, but they are good players and they mean a lot to me and this program.”

It's fitting, then, that Kentucky (5-5, 4-4 SEC) sits a win shy of bowl eligibility as those seniors prepare for their final home game, a 4:30 p.m. matchup with Austin Peay (0-10, 0-7 OVC) on Saturday. 

“Just to get where we are now, it is sweet, even though we could have won way more games this year,” McClain said. “But I like how it’s coming about. It is sweet.”

As McClain said, of course UK would have liked to have clinched bowl eligibility in games the last two weeks against Georgia and Tennessee. That didn’t happen though, which served to hammer home the lesson that, perhaps more than any other, these seniors have learned going through 2-10, 5-7 and 5-7 seasons their first three years.

“Everything is not perfect,” Kemp said. “Always just believe in just keeping my head up, just staying positive and keep working. Control what I can control and let everything take care of itself.”

That state of mind echoes the original decision Kemp and his classmates made in coming to Kentucky. There were more unknowns that knowns at that point, what with a first-time head coaching taking over a rebuilding program in the rugged SEC. All they could do was trust in Stoops’ vision and go to work.

“It’s been great,” Timmons said. “It wasn’t perfect, but a lot of things aren’t perfect. I’m very glad that I took the chance to trust in Mark Stoops and his plan to come here and start something big. Hopefully my time being here, I was able to affect this program and move it in a positive direction.”

No player has had more of an effect on the program than one senior who was already on campus when Stoops arrived. Jon Toth redshirted during the 2012 season, watching as Stoops was hired and brought in a new wave of talent. Not long after, Toth was moved to center and along the way would have to buy into the new staff’s way of doing things just as the recruits did.

Needless to say, he has, though the process that followed hasn’t been easy.

“When Coach Stoops came in, he just talked about having a good foundation and just working hard every day when you show up,” Toth said. “So I think just that change and trying to change the culture doesn’t happen overnight. So obviously it’s been a couple years, but I think it’s a testament to Coach Stoops and the guys he has a long with him that they’ve been able to stick with us and keep pushing us every day.”

Defensive back J.D. Harmon, who played the 2012 season before sitting out Stoops’ first season, has experienced the same.

“It’s changed in a great way,” Harmon said. “Coach Stoops, he does a really good job of bringing in the right guys. He doesn’t just hire anybody. He wants the best people around us. He doesn’t put anyone around us that’s not going to help us.”

Harmon – a self-proclaimed “momma’s boy” – admitted there’s a good chance he’ll cry during pregame Senior Day festivities. McWilson wouldn’t rule out the possibility either.

“It’ll definitely be an emotional time,” McWilson said. “I’m sure our families will be crying and Lord knows we’re going to miss each other. But I’m sure we’ll stay in contact. We’ve got more games to come, so it’s not the end for any of us.”

McClain couldn’t agree more with that last part. He’s saving his goodbyes for later.

“To be honest, this is just another game,” McClain said. “I want to go bowling. So that bowl game, that’s senior night for me.”

Full list of players participating in Senior Day

Seniors:
Will Thomas Collins, FB, Jackson, Ky.
Tanner Fink, TE/FB, Louisville, Ky.
J.D. Harmon, CB, Paducah, Ky.
Jojo Kemp, RB, DeLand, Fla.
Blake McClain, DB, Winter Park, Fla.
Marcus McWilson, S, Youngstown, Ohio
Courtney Miggins, DE, Lithonia, Ga.
Zach Myers, C, Miamisburg, Ohio
Ryan Timmons, WR, Frankfort, Ky.
Jon Toth, C, Indianapolis, Ind.
Zane Williams, DT, Lexington, Ky.

Juniors forgoing senior season:
Alex Montgomery, WR, Weston, Fla.
Dylan Greenberg, OG, Tucson, Ariz.
Ramsey Meyers, OG, Orange Park, Fla.