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By Jeff White (
CHARLOTTESVILLE –– Marques Hagans, a not-so-towering figure at 5-foot-10, knows what it’s like to be considered too small to shine in major-college football. And so he feels a kinship with Billy Kemp IV, one of the wide receivers Hagans coaches at the University of Virginia.
Kemp, who’s also a dynamic punt-returner, played on two state championship teams at Highland Springs High School outside Richmond, excelling in all three phases. Even so, he attracted little interest from FBS programs.
“I think it was my height,” said Kemp, who’s listed at 5-foot-9.
Hagans agrees. “I think height scares a lot of people off at various positions, whether it’s receiver, quarterback, defensive back,” he said. “But he has qualities that are hard to find in players, and toughness is one of them. He competes and he loves the game of football. Down in and down out, that’s what you look for.”
Kemp said: “That’s a part of the game that makes it so much fun, when people count you out because of your height and say there are things you can’t do. To prove them wrong is one of the best feelings.
“I definitely came in with a chip on my shoulder. I still have it and I always will. I just want to make plays and do what’s best for the team and really play with heart over height.”
Hagans played on two state championship teams at Hampton High School before spending a postgraduate year at Fork Union Military Academy. He starred at wide receiver, quarterback and punt-returner at UVA and later played in the NFL.
Does he see something of himself in Kemp?
“I do,” Hagans said. “He’s tough, and he’s physical, and I think he plays with that chip on his shoulder that you like to see. You root for guys that are undersized and tough, and he is.”
During the recruiting process, Kemp said this week, “I think Coach Hagans was the one that really stood on the table for me and overlooked my height and just saw what I could do and saw potential in me.”
Highland Springs’ assistant coaches include Devon Simmons, a former UVA defensive back. Simmons said the Springers’ staff put Kemp “in the same category that we put Greg Dortch in. Same thing, just because of his height.”
A 5-7 receiver, Dortch had only two other scholarship offers, both from FCS schools, when he committed to Wake Forest. He scored 19 touchdowns in the 20 games he played for Wake and is now on the New York Jets’ practice squad.
“A lot of teams are about the measurables,” Simmons said. “I don’t think a lot of people are doing their homework.”
Kemp grew up with an affinity for the Wahoos. His sister, Jayla, preceded him at UVA, where she’s in the nursing school, and their father, Bill Kemp, graduated from the University in 1990.
As a true freshman last season, Kemp appeared in seven games. He didn’t catch any passes, but he took over as the Cavaliers’ primary punt-returner during preparations for the Belk Bowl and acquitted himself well in that role. Kemp returned three punts for 31 yards in UVA’s 28-0 win over South Carolina.
This season, he’s returned six punts for 51 yards, with a long of 22.
“That’s a position where you can really show that you’re fearless,” Kemp said. “I feel like that’s what I am. I have good hands and good coaches behind me, so I just like being out there and being able to make a play.”
Kemp missed much of training camp last month with an injury. Then he had to sit out the Aug. 31 season opener for violating team rules, as did his roommate, Tavares Kelly, another sophomore wideout. 
In his 2019 debut, Kemp caught three passes for 34 yards against William & Mary, and he had two receptions for 20 yards last weekend in a 31-24 win over Florida State. The FSU game drew a near-capacity crowd to Scott Stadium.
“It was a great atmosphere,” Kemp said. “That’s why you go through all those winter workouts, summer workouts, all the training and preparation. That’s what you do it for, nights like those. But you just have to know who you’re playing for at the end of the day. You’re playing for the team.”
No. 21 UVA (3-0) concludes its three-game homestand at 7 p.m. Saturday against Old Dominion (1-1). ESPN2 is televising this non-conference game.
The Hoos have a deep corps of wideouts, and Kemp has had to be patient this season, Hagans said, but “I think now he’s starting to hit his groove. We’re finding out where we can implement him in the offense and finding ways to get him the ball.”
Against FSU, Kemp caught a short pass from quarterback Bryce Perkins midway through the second quarter, juked a defender and ran for a 13-yard gain (and first down).
“He has the ability to make you miss in space,” Hagans said, “and so the more ways we can get him the ball, the better. But he’s got to earn those opportunities, and so far he’s working to do that.”
Kemp wasn’t perfect against the Seminoles. On back-to-back punts in the first half of the Florida State, he mishandled the ball before pouncing on it.
“I think it was just lack of focus,” he said. “I really have to lock in more. I was taking my eyes off the ball too much and trying to see what defenders are doing and where I am on the field.”
After those lapses, though, Kemp fielded the ball cleanly, and he’ll be back on punts against ODU.
“I believed and still believe he’s sure-handed and confident and capable as a punt returner,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We’re chalking that up right now to an off night. Time and consistency will tell if that was the case or not. We’re hopeful that it is. He’s becoming more and more effective and integrated within our scripts at receiver and proving to be capable there.”
The Cavaliers recruited Kemp because of his versatility, Mendenhall said. “We thought he could do multiple things. Regardless of height, we don’t think he plays small. We think he plays big and dynamic.”
For a punt-returner, Hagans said, “whether you took one to the house the previous rep or put it on the ground, it’s the next rep that’s the most important. So sometimes when you do it and you get caught up in the hype of the game, you can forget about the fundamentals and the basics.
“The most important thing is the ball. As Billy learned, as we talk about all the time, you can’t make anybody miss without the ball. So make sure the ball goes to the referee [at the end of the return] and the offense gets a chance to come on the field. We got back to the basics this week, and I’m excited for him to get a new opportunity.”
At Highland Springs, which has won four straight Class 5 state titles, Kemp played for head coach Loren Johnson.
“He was just a great mentor, a great coach, and just wanted the best for every single one of his players,” Kemp said. “He has a way of bringing the best out of all his players, and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re such a good team.”
A former defensive back at Virginia Tech, Johnson had no issues with Kemp’s decision to become a Cavalier.
“He was just happy I was going to school,” Kemp said. “That’s his main goal, to put every one of his players in school for free.”
Likewise, Simmons said, he supports whatever decisions recruits from Highland Springs make. Still, he acknowledged, to see Kemp “go to my alma mater was special to me.”
For Hagans, it made perfect sense for UVA to pursue Kemp.
“He’s in-state, and he plays for a really good program,” Hagans said. “It’s always good to always have guys in your program that are from the state and take pride in being from Virginia.”