LEXINGTON, Ky. - A pair of junior-college standouts, tight end Steven Borden and defensive end Za'Darius Smith, have become the first signees for new Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, the coach announced Wednesday.
Borden is a 6-3, 250-pounder from Kilgore (Texas) College who earned second-team all-conference honors. Among junior college players, the 6-6, 255-pound Smith is ranked as the nation's No. 1 strongside defensive end by JCGridiron.com.
"This is a great start to our recruiting class," Stoops said. "Being able to sign such impact players with a short amount of time to recruit gives me great optimism for the future.
"Steven brings us a player who is very versatile and brings the physical presence we need at the tight end position. We can move him around in the offense and play different positions. We're excited to have him join us.
"Za'Darius has great size and is an `every down' player - a physical player who can stop the run and also can rush the passer," Stoops continued. "We're very happy to sign him."
Both players are graduating in December and plan to enroll at Kentucky in January. They will participate in spring practice and each has two years of eligibility remaining.
Here are their biographies:
Head coach Mark Stoops talked to the media Wednesday about signing Bolden and Smith.
Steven Borden, Tight End, 6-3, 250, Jr-JC, Waxahachie, Texas (Waxahachie/Kilgore) - Second-team all-conference tight end at Kilgore (Texas) College ... Caught 11 passes this season for 181 yards, a 16.5-yard average, and four touchdowns ... Also was recruited by Texas Tech before turning his attention to the Wildcats ... Versatile athlete who has the size to play tight end and the athleticism to play as a slot receiver ... Coached at Kilgore by J.J. Eckert ... Played defensive end during the 2010 season at Southwestern Assemblies of God, an NAIA school in Waxahachie, Texas ... Made 35 tackles, featuring 7.5 tackles for loss, including 3.5 quarterback sacks ... Played his senior season as a defensive end at Waxahachie High School, helping team to a 12-1 record and the quarterfinals of the state Class AAAA playoffs ... Earned first-team all-district honors ... Coached at Waxahachie by David Ream ... Played three seasons at Santa Clarita Christian High School in California as a quarterback, receiver and linebacker ... Coached at Santa Clarita by Garrick Moss ... Also played basketball in high school.
"Who I was going to play for and what kind of offense they run was how I based my decision and both fit well with me," Borden said. "It started with the coaching. Coach Stoops, Coach Brown - and his offensive system - and Coach Marrow (tight ends coach Vince Marrow) all were pivotal, all have successful coaching histories. It is a young, ambitious coaching staff - all hungry to make things happen at Kentucky."
"The greatest thing about Steven is his work ethic," said Josh Pruitt, Kilgore offensive coordinator. "He is relentless, always trying to get better. He has great speed for a player his size. He power blocks well and the best thing he does is catch the ball, with how fast he is and how good his hands are. We have highlights this year with some unbelievable catches he made."
Za'Darius Smith, Defensive End, 6-6, 260, Jr-JC, Greenville, Ala. (Greenville/East Mississippi Community College) - The nation's No. 1 junior college strongside defensive end prospect as ranked by JCGridiron.com ... The nation's No. 10 overall juco prospect, and No. 2 defensive end, by ESPN ... Listed No. 15 overall, and the No. 2 weakside defensive end, by 24/7 Sports ... Totaled 47 tackles, including 6.5 quarterback sacks and 11 total tackles for loss, as a sophomore at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss. ... Named second-team All-America by the National Junior College Athletic Association ... Also named to the juco all-region and all-state teams ... Helped EMCC to an 8-2 record ... Made 19 tackles, featuring 4.5 sacks and seven total TFL, as a freshman ... EMCC won the 2011 NJCAA national championship with a 12-0 mark ... Head coach was Buddy Stephens and his defensive line coach was current UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh ... Was offered by numerous schools, such as Florida State, Miami, Texas A&M, Texas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Auburn among others ... A relative latecomer to the game as he grew up playing basketball at Greenville (Ala.) High School and didn't begin playing football until his senior year ...Coached at Greenville by Ben Blackmon ...An older brother, Bob Meeks, played center at Auburn from 1988-91 and for the NFL's Denver Broncos ... A cousin, Davern Williams, played at Troy and for the NFL's New York Giants ... A niece, Kristi Mokube, currently plays basketball at Florida State.
"What helped me make my decision was my relationship with Coach Brumbaugh, Coach Eliot (UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot) and Coach Stoops and my trust in them," Smith said.
"Za'Darius is a humble person in that he is a fantastic athlete who knows he still has a lot of work to do," East Mississippi Coach Buddy Stephens said. "He has a tremendous skill set to be an excellent pass rusher. He has a body frame that can carry more weight and he's only played three years of football. He also knows he is in this thing for a college education. He's a very loyal, articulate young man who will be a fantastic spokesman for Kentucky football."
Kentucky Head Coach Mark Stoops News Conference Transcript ...
Opening statement … “Good to see everybody. I just wanted to touch base with you all before we broke for the holiday. It has been a tremendous two and a half weeks putting the staff together. You guys had a chance to visit with Neal (Brown) yesterday. It is a great group of staff members. I am very happy with the way that is all coming together. They have done a tremendous job recruiting. As you could see with the announcement that we made with the two junior college signees that we picked up today, (it is a) tremendous addition to the Wildcat family.”
On how the last few weeks have been … “I was counting up the days because I figured I would be asked that today. It’s been 18 days. It seems like a lot more than that (laughter). Quick two and a half weeks. It has been a tremendous whirlwind. But, I feel very good. This week, I have been able to put my feet on the ground, settle in a little bit today and this week. Again, the staff came together very nicely, so yeah; it’s been a hectic two and a half weeks. The first couple of days were a complete blur. This week I have been able to set down a little bit.”
On wanting youth on the new staff … “That was part of it, was youth. The mold I wanted was guys with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder that wanted to prove something. That fit very nicely with the coordinators and the rest of the staff. So, to get two great, young, up-and-coming coordinators that have done it and been in big-time situations that have called games, starting with Neal (Brown). I really like the style that Neal ran at Texas Tech. I know the problem he has presented to defenses and my brother has had to defend them. I am just very familiar with the whole system going back to our connection with Mike Leach and of course all the way back to Hal Mumme with that whole family of coaches. I worked with Sonny Dykes at Arizona, coach Bill Bedenbaugh worked with me at Arizona, so that whole group was something I was very interested in. With Neal and his connection to Kentucky, it was a great fit for us. With coach (D.J.) Eliot, it was a tremendous hire for me. I was excited with the opportunity to bring coach Elliot. Obviously I am very familiar with him and he is very familiar with me. I had to fend off some people (other schools). Both of those guys and all of our coaches were getting an awful lot of attention. So, it was important for me to be able to hire him. He is fired up and will do a tremendous job. He is full of energy, organization, work ethic, the whole deal, but again I am just very excited to be able to hire both of those guys.”
On what he means when he says he wants a ‘creative’ offense … “I think being creative with how you dress things up here and there and being creative with how you run the ball, being creative how you distribute the ball. I think you have to be very well balanced, but you have to be creative to move the ball. I know from being a defensive coordinator for all those years, somebody that just wants to line up and run the same plays, and how they have motions and shifts, that’s how I know they will be creative and dress it up and find some ways to move the ball.”
On the addition of the two new junior college signees … “With Steven Borden, we were very excited to add Steven to our program. It was a need for us. We felt like we needed to go out and address the tight end situation and bring somebody in. As we started looking at junior college tight ends, obviously Steven jumped right up at the front of the list because coach Brown was recruiting him at Texas Tech, so they were already familiar with him. Once Neal brought him to the table, we were able to watch film on him. I loved him and felt like it was a need and felt like he was a versatile player, so we are very excited to bring Steven into the program.
“And with Za’Darius (Smith), again there was a great need, but there was a relationship there. This is a unique situation to be able to land a player like Za’Daruis in a short amount of time. We had two weeks to recruit him, he was out of official visits, so coach (Jimmy Brumbaugh) and I flew there to see his mother and him at Greenville. Again, he was back on break and he didn’t have a visit. He would have loved to come on a visit, but he had used up his five and so it was a very unique situation to be able to go down there and land Za’Darius and the people that we beat. Za’Darius had an opportunity to play at a lot of good schools, so that was a tremendous get for us. Obviously the relationship Za’Darius had with coach Jimmy Brumbaugh and with coach (D.J.) Eliot and with myself helped. Coach Eliot and I were recruiting him at Florida State and Jimmy (Brumbaugh) coached him, so relationships were a big thing with that. It is very rare, but could not be more excited. It was a great need for us. Here is a player that has tremendous physical gifts, 6’5”, maybe 6’6”, 250, and a tremendous player. He is an every-down guy, could be great against the run, great pass rusher and just an impact type of guy. So, for him to be able to address that situation at defensive end is a tone setter.”
On the signing of Smith setting a tone for his recruiting at UK … “Absolutely. I think it’s great and that was part of what we were selling: set the tone and set the precedents for the new Kentucky football. So it was tremendous that he believed in us and that’s what I told him. 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. He signed a national letter of intent without even stepping foot on our campus. Says a lot about what he believes. He believes in the people that are here and Kentucky and the staff that we put together.”
On balancing recruiting and evaluating the current roster in a short amount of time … “That was challenging. The coaches that were here, the graduate assistants that were here broke down some film and got anything – it could have been practice, it could have been scrimmages, it could have been games – and then made cut-ups of each particular person in each position. So then we went through it as a staff and addressed that and got a little feel for what we have, what we need. The coaching staff – past and present, the new guys and the old guys – got together and really hammered that out.”
On his evaluation of the current roster … “Like I said in my initial presser was that I believe we need to get bigger and stronger. I think we’re going to address that situation and try to get a little bit better physical presence. We need to get in the weight room, we got to develop the guys we have and we need to go out and recruit some more size. And we need speed. We hear that all the time, size and speed, but it’s true. We need to get some more skill positions and get bigger up front and every sport will tell you the same thing. There’s not a coach in America that would say they wouldn’t want big guys and get some fast and talented skill (players). We need it all just like everybody, but there’s an opportunity here. I believe there are some great players out there and there’s an opportunity.”
On dealing with the non-coaching duties associated with being a head coach … “That is new. It’s something that I am comfortable with being around my brothers and coaching with my brother Mike. Seeing him start that program (at Arizona) and go out and do the things you’re talking about and greet people and shake hands and talk I think helped prepare me for this situation. Of course, watching Bob for all these years, really keeping a close eye on the way he does things (at Oklahoma) because I just admire the way he handles himself. I’ve watched him for a long time and being a part of it with Mike I think gives me a lot of experience other first-year head coaches don’t have. And then of course being in the situation at Florida State and being such a high-profile school and the great importance that you have there. I think it prepares me but I understand I’ve still got some work to do and that’s understandable. I’m doing the best I can.”
On any surprises the first few weeks … “I don’t know if there’s big surprises, but it definitely has been overwhelming at times. I don’t think there’s any way around that for anybody, whether you’ve been a head coach or not – maybe it helps, I’m sure it probably helps if you’ve been a head coach. But I know Bobby told me that before I took it, and Mike, that the couple first days your head would be spinning and you’d sit there and ask yourself, ‘What in the world have you done to yourself?’ because your life certainly has changed. And it has (laughter). My wife has gotten a little bit mad at me from time to time because for the last two-and-a-half weeks I haven’t even had much time to even talk on the phone and check in on the boys. That’s been difficult on the family and we understand that goes with the territory. My wife does a good job keeping me grounded at times.”
On how defensive duties will be distributed with coordinator D.J. Eliot … “I’ve learned real quick in these two-and-a-half weeks that I can tell my role’s changed drastically. And I think it would be impossible for me to run the defense the way it needs to be run with me being a head coach. So Coach Eliot will do that. A hundred percent confidence in him and he knows what I want and the way we do things together so it will be him running the defense. Of course, when the time permits itself, I will be watching more film probably with them than the offense, but I would like to split it up. I need to do that at practice as well. I don’t want to just work the defense all the time. I want to be supportive, I want to be around the offense, I want to have fun with the whole team and show the commitment to both sides. But Coach Eliot will do that. I will, of course, be there to help him because he has not been a coordinator and so I will be there to help put things together and game plan certain problems they may be having and just the experience factor will help him in that area. But I have tremendous confidence in him.”
On creating new positions on the staff … “I think, if you look around the country, it takes a bunch of us – like I said in the original press conference as well – it takes a lot of people for us to be successful. I’m going to address all that at another time when I really put it all together. But I am putting some really talented people to affect…the bottom line’s affecting these players in a positive way. As I talk about that with Mr. (Mitch) Barnhart, we wouldn’t be wasteful and just doing things to do them. They’re all positions that are of great need and the bottom line is they’re here to help these players.”
On hiring assistants quickly for recruiting … “I did feel the need to get some help as I was talking about those first couple of days, it was a lonely feeling in that office because there was so much to do and you needed some help. A lot of people I talked to about being a head coach for the first time, even guys in conference, guys like Kevin Sumlin and just different people I spoke with about the opportunity to be a head coach. They all gave me great advice in saying be very patient because you’re going to get a lot of pressure from people in a lot of different angles. We all want things done right now but a lot of good advice I got from people about being patient, hiring the right guys and also being patient in selecting the right players in recruiting as well so I’m trying to do that.”
On roster updates with grades at the end of the semester … “We’ll address that another time; they’re coming in right now. It’s just starting to filter in. I was just in an academic meeting and I’m not totally caught up so I’ll go back after this and continue to address that.”
On updates on injuries … “No, not at this time.”
On importance of assistant coaches Neal Brown, Chad Scott, John Schlarman and their connections to Kentucky … “Very, as long as they fit in with what we are trying to do and with the whole staff and had the qualifications. It was important to me and I’ll rely on those guys. That was important in my decision. More importantly, he’s (Neal Brown) a great offensive coordinator and they’re great offensive coaches.”
On recruits committed to previous staff … “I’ve been in communication with all of them and we talked to some of them about possibly letting them look at some other schools. It would probably be in their best interest to look at some other schools just system-wise. Everybody completely understood that. Either side, I don’t think you want a player that you’re going to sign come in here and be unhappy if he doesn’t fit the system and have to sit out for four or five years. That wouldn’t be the right thing to do to those players, so we’ve addressed all of those.”
On expecting to sign more Junior College players … “Possibly but we’ll see. There are a few more needs, we’ll look at that and evaluate as we go.”
On deciding to go for the Kentucky job with other openings … “We had a mutual (connection), my attorney knows the situation here and so I reached out through my attorney, through my representation, so we started talking and just felt like it was a great opportunity. As we started talking, the more and more we talked, the more and more interest I had. I just felt good from the start. I felt like, I think everybody in this room could agree that Kentucky is chomping at the bit to get back and be competitive in the SEC and I felt that. I felt there was a commitment by the administration and I know there is a commitment by the fan base and I could tell by being here two and a half weeks that there is going to be a great commitment from our players to get this program back on track.”
On watching the carousel of coaching hires … “It’s funny, the other day, our building is set up with two levels so I don’t get down to the bottom floor much and I was strolling around down there and talking with some of the GAs and just different people on the bottom floor. In one of our GAs office, you know graduate assistants always keep the job board and I glanced over at it and we had a big laugh about it. Wow, what a year, it’s really the first I even acknowledged it to be honest with you. You always hear bits and pieces about what’s going on but there has been so much to do the last two and a half weeks I really haven’t read much newspaper or watched any TV, Sportscenter, or anything, you know you get a blurb here and there. But when I saw the job board on the defensive GAs wall, it’s amazing, big year.”
On D.J. Eliot… “Yeah, he’s going to be there (Florida State) for the bowl game. He stayed and finished recruiting for us and then left to go down and help. We both felt the need for him to do that, Florida State has been good to both of us. We care a great deal about that program, about those players, so he wants to go down there and finish that thing off right. The players deserve that.”
On what the next few weeks are like for him and making the transition to Lexington … “The wife takes care of all that. I had to just get a general feel for Lexington and I did get out and start driving around at least a little bit, an hour each day to get a little feel for which direction is what. So over the break when I go home and she’s looking at houses and things online, I’ll at least have a general idea for the neighborhoods and for the areas, but yeah, my wife handles all of that. I picked the job, she picks the houses (laughter).”
On if he’s had a ‘wow’ moment at UK… “I probably better not go into it, but there was a joke with some of the staff. We had one where I caught myself. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I am the boss.’ So, yeah.”
On patience waiting on Neal Brown’s decision… “It was definitely getting a little hairy for me. It was. And that was to no fault of Neal’s. It was just the situation that it was. I guess that was my first test as a head coach. Obviously I’ve been an assistant my whole life and wanted to be supportive of Neal. I understand what he’s going through. We hadn’t named him yet or anything to the media, so we just thought we’d ride that out and see where he was at, and of course Neal was chomping at the bit to be here and be a part of the program. It got a little nerve wracking, both with him and coach Eliot. Those guys put me through it a little bit.”
On sensing the buzz about Kentucky football… “I have. Tony (Neely) and other people keep me abreast to the situation, but I’m glad to hear that. It seems like everyone I talk to is very excited about that. I had a chance to sit and visit with Tim Couch last night and Tim kind of said the same thing about how many people are excited, and you know it’s great to hear because we’re going to need that. We’re going to need great support. We’re all in this together and I mean that and the media, you know, I need your support too. That’s the way it is. You all could put a spin on things any way you want and really, I think, it’s exciting to see that everyone’s excited about football. So it’s good.”
On if the two junior college signees were “flipped” recruits… “No, we didn’t flip them, but they were classic battles, especially with Za’Darius (Smith). Myself and coach Brumbaugh got off a plane in Greeneville, Ala., and were greeted by the mayor and Za’Darius, so it was kind of interesting. I think the mayor is an Auburn guy, too (laughter). But it was a good, hard fight for these guys, in particular Za’Darius. (Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin) was in, I think, the morning and I came in the afternoon to see the mom and Za’Darius. Coach (Sumlin) and I have a history, so we can’t badmouth each other.”
On what winning recruiting battles means for the staff… “There were some high-fives in the office today. We were excited. Very much so. It does. It makes you feel very good about the future. Myself and the staff, we’ve been through those. We expect to win our fair share of recruiting battles. But that first one, a player like him in such a short amount of time, definitely energized us.”
On what getting a recruit without taking a visit means for the program… “I think, in particular for junior college players, because the bells and the whistles, these players need to know that you’re going to help them and that they’re going to have an opportunity. So I think the relationship system is very important to the junior college player. With Za’Darius, I think it was easy because he knows coach Brumbaugh, he knows how he’s going to be coached. Coach Eliot was the defensive line coach at Florida State. He saw what coach Eliot did for the last three years. And then I’m the defensive coordinator and he saw what we did at Florida State for the last three years. If you’re sitting there, you’re Za’Darius, it looks like a pretty good situation for him here. You got the d-line coach, the defensive coordinator and the head coach all speaking the exact same language.”
On speaking to Steve Borden’s father, pro wrestler “Sting”… “Yeah, he came and had dinner with us and hung out for the day. It was fun to get to know him. He’s a tremendous person and we had a good day and he liked what he saw here. I asked (Borden) in the indoor if he wanted to throw around a little bit, but he didn’t want any piece of me (laughter).”
On his fiery personality on the sideline… “ Come on, I’ve changed now. I think it’s real important for a head coach to be a head coach, to manage the game. I understand I’ve got to keep my emotions in check and I think I’ve grown a lot in that area because, yeah, it’s a big part of who I am and how I coach. But most of it’s in a positive way. I just believe you can will players to do things. I have a great passion for what I do and how I coach and how we get it done. But I do think roles change a little bit as a head coach and how you handle those situations.”
On making facilities improvements… “There are, and I’ll really let Mitch (Barnhart) address those and make sure we’re on the same page. I think everybody here wants to see some improvement in certain areas and I believe we’re working hard to get that done.”
On his reaction to a passionate football fan base… “I’m not surprised by that. This is the SEC and I know the fans of Kentucky want great football. That doesn’t surprise me one bit. I expected that and I expect great support. I believe in the fan base here. I see their passion, so we’re all in this thing together and we’re looking forward to it, embracing it. It’s been a great relationship with basketball. Coach Cal (John Calipari) has been tremendous. I’ve had a few visits with him. I’ve had the opportunity to watch practice and sit in on one of his meetings and just a chance to spend a little time with him. I’m looking forward to that relationship. How can you not embrace such a dynamic person and such a great program?”