JUCO signees signal early progress for Stoops and UK staff

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A day after offensive coordinator Neal Brown sat in the Wildcat Den and described the “whirlwind” start to his coaching career at Kentucky, head coach Mark Stoops sat in the same seat – same place – and used the same meteorological term to describe his first 18 days on the job.

And the winds of change have brought new talent.

Before he answered questions about his philosophy, his vision and the Big Blue Nation, Stoops described his first two recruits – both of them junior college transfers, and both of them potential game-changers.

Texas tight end Steven Borden and Mississippi defensive end Za’Darius Smith signed with the Wildcats on Wednesday, the first day of the signing period. They give the Cats an infusion of talent at two positions where it’s sorely needed, but more importantly, they’re evidence that Stoops and his new assistants are riding the momentum that began nearly three weeks ago, when Stoops was introduced to a cheering throng at the Nutter Field House.

He’s convinced now more than ever that this was the right stop for him.

“Everybody in this room could agree that Kentucky is chomping at the bit to get back and compete in the SEC, and I felt that,” he said. “I felt that there was a commitment by the administration and I know there’s a commitment by the fan base. I could tell from being here two and a half weeks that there’s going to be a great commitment by our players to get this program back on track.”

Step one is raising the talent level. It’s the same “step one” at every program with a new coaching staff. Odds are, when a head coach is fired, he and his assistants haven’t done the job when it comes to bringing in enough athletes. Joker Phillips and his staff brought in players, but there were too many holes to fill because of well-documented attrition. Stoops and company have inherited talent, but it’s young. That’s why the junior college ranks are a decent stop-gap measure.

Brown had been recruiting Borden for Texas Tech, so there was a prior relationship at play. Same for Smith; new defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh was Smith’s juco head coach, and Stoops had been working him on behalf of Florida State.

“There were some high fives in the office this morning” after the staff received the two letters of intent, Stoops said. “We were excited, very much so. It makes you feel very good about the future. My staff and I expect to win our share of recruiting battles but that first one… definitely energized us.”

It also might energize other recruits, and convince them at least to take a second look at Kentucky.

“Part of what we were selling was, Hey – set the tone. Set the precedence for the new Kentucky football,” Stoops said of his new recruiting pitch, which landed Smith, rated by one service the number two defensive end in the junior college ranks. “It was tremendous that he believed in us and that’s what I told him. He signed a national letter of intent without even stepping foot on our campus. That says a lot about what he believes. He believes in the people that are here and Kentucky and the staff that we put together.”

There will be more recruits to come, as Stoops and his staff settle in. He has two more assistants to hire, and an office to set up (not to mention a house to buy, but he says he’ll leave that up to his wife).

Before long it will be time to roll out the footballs and strap on the pads for spring football. There’s a big job ahead, and Stoops says he can’t wait. Neither can the Nation, but he says that part of the deal didn’t surprise him, despite UK’s reputation as a basketball school.

“This is the SEC,” he said, “and I know the fans of Kentucky want great football. 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.”
Fans can’t wait to embrace more good recruiting news. They’re hoping that way they’ll be able to wrap their arms around a few more victories – sooner, rather than later.

(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)

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