Billy Kemp IV: Don’t tread on me … UVA receiver loves beating the odds every day

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Billy Kemp IV has spent the majority of his life destroying societal stereotypes. His 5-foot-9, 172-pound frame has fueled speculation about his ability to stand out on the football field, has caused doubt, has cost him opportunities.

Scripture tattooed on his body is a constant reminder that he’s not alone in his fight to prove skeptics wrong. Psalm 56:3— “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee.”

“That’s something I keep close to my heart just whenever I’m facing a hard time,” said Kemp, a fifth-year wide receiver after a recent Virginia practice. “The man above has me go out there and put my best foot forward.”

Kemp relied heavily on that message over the winter while recuperating from surgery to make him whole for his final season of college football. He played hurt all of last season but still had a spectacular campaign, hauling in 74 receptions (fourth-most in the entire ACC) and making third-team, all-conference.

All that on an ankle that was so beaten up from bone chips, which he said led to injuring ligaments in his ankle, leading to a rather “big” surgery. A photo of him in a hospital bed during recovery resembled a cartoon character almost mummified with bandages from a horrific skiing accident.

Kemp wasn’t able to walk again until about five weeks after surgery and wasn’t able to really get back on his feet in a normal way for six or seven months. He missed winter conditioning, spring practice and summer conditioning, returning gradually for August training camp.

For the product of Highland Springs, being away from the game was more challenging than the pain.

“I’m a competitor, so I hate being off the field away from teammates,” Kemp said. “I hate not being able to contribute to my teammates, and push alongside with them. It was one of the hardest things ever. I had great trainers, doctors, coaches, teammates around me to keep me up and keep my spirits.

“Winter workouts is something that most guys dread, but that’s something I love, being out there, so winter workouts, spring ball, I love being out there and getting better with them every day.”

Tony Elliott and the rest of Virginia’s staff have been careful in working the sure-handed receiver back into action and bringing him back up to speed, but have been impressed with how Kemp has handled his return.

The new staff has only scratched the surface on how valuable Kemp is, not only as a receiving weapon and kick returner, but as a leader and role-model worker. But that’s OK. Sometimes people have to see to believe.

When Kemp first attended UVA’s football camp, back when he was still at Highland Springs High School, he had to overcome the usual impressions in order to get an opportunity for Coach Bronco Mendenhall’s team.

Nobody, it seemed, was interested in signing an undersized wide receiver. Nobody, that is, but Bronco.

“Our staff was not endorsing him because of his size and his measurables,” Mendenhall said. “But I did, and that’s really all that mattered.

“There was no one that caught as many passes in that frame. I’m talking about one workout. No one covered more as a defensive back. No one caught more punts, and he wanted to keep going basically when the players left. He was wanting people to stay so we could still work.”

Mendenhall offered Kemp, who promptly scooped up the good fortune and has been an effective possession receiver for Virginia ever since. He has been for the Cavaliers what Julian Edelman was for the Patriots, a thorn in the saddle to opposing defenses.

He played a role on UVA’s 2019 ACC Coastal Division championship team. In 2020, Kemp was No. 2 in the ACC and 18th nationally with 6.7 receptions per game. He had 10 catches against No. 1 Clemson.

Last season, in 12 games (10 starts), he had no less than three receptions in every outing and extended a 27-game streak of at least one catch in every game, dating back to 2019. His 74 catches, 725 yards and six touchdowns were all career highs.

He enters this season ranked fourth all-time on Virginia’s career receiving list with 176.

Surrounded by an elite group of receivers such as Dontayvion Wicks, Lavel Davis Jr. and Keytaon Thompson, Kemp should flourish in UVA’s passing offense with veteran, record-breaking quarterback Brennan Armstrong this season. 

Mendenhall, no doubt, will be observing from afar, but won’t be at all surprised.

“Billy is the epitome of what I like in terms of competitive mindset,” Mendenhall once said. “He won’t back down from anyone and there’s no situation or stage too big. He loves to compete. He plays right to the edge of the rules but within the rules and he wants to win. He’s one of the best practice players and hardest practice players I’ve ever coached.”

Kemp isn’t shy about where that fight came from. It’s an old chip on his shoulders.

“I think that came from my hometown,” Kemp said. “Being from Richmond and being an undersized guy, we all have a chip on our shoulder to make it out, just put our best foot forward every day. Me, personally, I was never the biggest guy and people overlooked me for many things.”

Kemp wakes up every day, knowing that before he returns home that evening, somebody, somewhere along the way is going to doubt him, telling him in some fashion that he can’t do certain things.

“I just want to prove to everybody that I can do anything that’s asked,” he said.

The scripture is there to remind him that he certainly can.

Because he missed so much time during the coaching transition, Kemp is not only making the physical comeback but also faces the learning curve of a new offense, new terminology. It’s OK. He doesn’t mind the challenge.

“My goal is to come out here every day. The coach is what makes me a good player and how hard I work and how much I want to be coached and how much I want to learn is up to me. We’ve got bigger, better things coming ahead, so I’m just focusing on the future.”

Kemp pays a lot of attention to wide receivers coach Marques Hagans, who continues to produce solid players at the position. Hagans has told Kemp that what he wants him to do is keep the ball off the ground and make would-be tacklers miss when the ball is in his hands. The veteran has been efficient at both.

He takes pride in making multiple defenders miss after he makes the catch. In fact, his 354 yards after catch last season was fifth-best in the ACC.

“The best receivers can catch the ball and make people miss, create the big play, so that’s just one thing I want to include in my game,” Kemp said.

Part of that is being an excellent route runner, and Kemp considers himself as a technician. He works on perfecting that route running every chance he gets.

Just in case there’s anybody else out there doubting Billy Kemp IV, they should pay closer attention.