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Early returns strong for Stoops as Smith, Borden sign

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With almost two months before February's regular signing period, Kentucky's new coaching staff got a chance to test out the fax machine at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday morning.

This was no dry run though.

Dec. 19 was the first day mid-year junior college transfers could sign National Letters of Intent. It also happened to be the first opportunity for Mark Stoops had to add talent to his roster.

Two conclusions can be drawn based on the documents arriving at the UK offices. First, the fax machine works. Second - and more importantly - so too does Stoops' recruiting pitch.

"There were some high-fives in the office this morning, oh yeah," Stoops said. "We were excited, very much so."

Stoops and his fellow coaches had good reason for a little celebration as they welcomed defensive end Za'Darius Smith and tight end Steven Borden into the fold. Barely three weeks removed from being officially named UK head coach and with assistants anywhere from one to 13 days into their tenures, landing players of the two junior college standouts' caliber is quite an accomplishment.

Being the first to come on board is a leap of faith for the two signees - both of whom plan to enroll in January - but Stoops encouraged them to embrace it, Smith in particular.

"That was a part of what we were selling is, 'Hey, set the tone; set the precedence for the new Kentucky football,' so it was tremendous that he believed in us," Stoops said.

The 6-foot-6, 255-pound defensive end had his pick of schools, including Miami, Texas and Texas A&M. He is rated as a four-star prospect by most outlets and the top junior college defensive end in the nation by some. Smith was recruited by Stoops at Florida State and played for new defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh for one season at East Mississippi Community College.

"What helped me make my decision was my relationship with Coach Brumbaugh, Coach (D.J.) Eliot and Coach Stoops and my trust in them," Smith said.

The news of Smith's signing came as a surprise to many experts, especially considering he made his pledge without visiting the UK campus. Since he was in such high demand, Smith had already made his five allotted official visits this fall. Unable to host him in Lexington, Stoops and Brumbaugh flew to visit Smith and his mother in his native Greenville, Ala.

"Thank you to him and his mother for the tremendous confidence and faith that they have in us and this program to get this done, to sign the National Letter of Intent without ever even stepping foot on this campus says a lot about what he believes," Stoops said. "He believes in the people that are here at Kentucky and the staff that we put together."

Just as Smith believes in Stoops, Stoops believes in Smith.

With him having racked up 47 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season en route to second-team All-America honors, Stoops sees in Smith a versatile player who fits a need.

"Here's a player that has tremendous physical gifts," Stoops said. "He's 6-5, maybe 6-6, 250 and a tremendous player...an every-down guy. He'll be great against the run, great pass rusher, just an impact type of guy. For him to come in and address the situation at defensive end was very critical."

Borden addresses a similar need.

UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown recruited Borden to Texas Tech, so Brown immediately brought up the name of the 6-3, 250-pound tight end. Playing last season at Kilgore (Texas) College, Borden was selected second-team all-conference. Even though he only recently began playing tight end, he caught 11 passes for 118 yards and four touchdowns in 2012.

"Once Neal brought him to the table, we were able to watch film on him," Stoops said. "I loved him and felt like there was a need, felt like he was a very versatile player."

Even though he's officially been a Wildcat for less than 24 hours, Borden has already developed a following among UK fans. Last weekend, news of his on-campus visit spread rapidly as his father Steve - better known as his professional wrestling name, Sting - accompanied him. Aware of his background, Stoops jokingly issued a challenge to the elder Borden.

"I asked him in the indoor (facility) if he wanted to throw around a little bit but he didn't want any piece of me," Stoops said.

After his two signings, opposing coaches might not want any piece of Stoops either. He knows he won't win every one of these battles, but if Wednesday is any indication, that fax machine will be getting plenty of work.

"It makes you feel very good about the future," Stoops said. "Myself and the staff, we've been through those and we expect to win our fair share of recruiting battles, but that first one with a player like him in such a short amount of time definitely energized us."

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