Kemp a key in UT's title bid

His frame is little for a safety. His name is little-known. His role in Tennessee's first 11 games was little. But he's a big reason the Vols will be playing for the SEC title Saturday at The Georgia Dome.

It would be difficult to identify a more unsung hero than Ricardo Kemp in Tennessee's run to the Eastern Division title. After recording just 8 tackles in the Vols' first 11 games, however, the 5-11, 190-pound had a breakout game in the regular-season finale at Kentucky – 4 solo tackles, an assist, two sacks and an interception.

With Tennessee's secondary thinned by injuries, Kemp filled the role of nickel back vs. the Big Blue. Without his contribution, the Vols probably don't come away with a 52-50 four-overtime victory and a berth in the league championship game.

Kemp's first sack came on a third-and-five at Kentucky's 43-yard line, resulting in an eight-yard loss and a punt. His second sack came on the Wildcats' very next possession – this time resulting in a four-yard loss on second-and-six at the UK 37. The Cats punted again one play later.

Kemp's interception came after a big hit by linebacker Jerod Mayo broke up a pass to Kentucky's Jacob Tamme. Kemp reeled in the deflection and returned it nine yards, apparently sealing a 31-28 UT win with just 4:29 remaining. The Vol offense gave the ball back three plays later, however, and UK kicked a game-tying field goal on the final play of regulation to send the game into overtime.

Still, Kemp's breakout game got the attention of his teammates.

"You saw a pretty bright light in number 23," defensive end Xavier Mitchell said. "That tells you a lot right there. He had a great game – two sacks and an interception. That's all you can ask from somebody coming off the bench."

Interestingly enough, Kemp's performance in last weekend's game has elevated him to second on the team in interceptions (1) and fourth in sacks (2).

"We had six sacks – two from linebackers, two from a nickel back (Kemp), one from a defensive end and one from a defensive tackle," defensive coordinator John Chavis noted. "For a team that doesn't do anything but play zone, that's pretty good for the linebackers to get those sacks and the nickel back to get those sacks. I'm kind of pleased at how it turned out."

Kemp was part of a new pressure package Chavis sprang on the Wildcats, and the Warren, Arkansas native played his role to the hilt.

"We did some things that were a little different in our pressure package that created some situations for him," Chavis said. "He was around the ball and made several big plays for us. I'm really excited for him and for our football team."

With Jonathan Hefney in his final year of eligibility, Kemp could be the heir-apparent at free safety next season. Chavis concedes the point but, naturally, is more focused on the secondary's makeup for this weekend than its makeup for next season.

"Certainly, he's proven that he can be a good hand," the coordinator said. "We'll just see how it shakes out in the spring. It'll be interesting to see how that thing shakes out."

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