Kentucky sent a shockwave through the football recruiting world on Wednesday morning when highly-touted junior college defensive end Za'Darius Smith announced he was singing with the Wildcats.
Smith, who was considered by many scouts to be the top defensive end prospect in the juco ranks, chose UK over a long list of major programs that included Auburn, Florida State, Miami, Texas, Texas A&M, Missouri, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and West Virginia.
When new UK head coach Mark Stoops learned of Smith's decision, his reaction was mixed with equal parts adrenaline rush and quiet confidence, giving hints of what could be an exciting future in Lexington.
"There were some high-fives in the office this morning. Oh yeah. We were excited. Very much so,” Stoops said. “It makes you feel very good about the future.
“Myself and the staff, we’ve been through those, and 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.”
Kentucky landed the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Smith without the benefit of an official visit. The East Mississippi Community College standout put his faith in Stoops and new UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who had both recruited him at Florida State, as well as UK defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh, who coached him at EMCC.
"That's a unique situation to be able to land a player like Za'Darius in a short amount of time," Stoops said. "Two weeks to recruit him, and he was out of official visits. Coach and I went and flew there to see his mother and him at Greenville (Ala.) when he was back on break. He didn't have a visit. He would have loved to come on a visit, but he had already used up his five, so it was a very unique situation to go out and land Za'Darius.
“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."
Smith, who had 66 tackles and 11 sacks this season at EMCC, had taken official visits to Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas, Texas A&M and West Virginia.
Asked if the staff had to “flip” Smith from another school, Stoops said: “We didn’t flip him, but it was a good, classic battle. Myself and coach Brumbaugh got off a plane in Greenville, Ala., and were greeted at the plane by the mayor and Za’Darius, so that was kind of interesting. And I think the mayor was an Auburn guy, too.” (Laughs)
The sales pitch? Be part of building something special at UK.
"Part of what we were selling was 'Hey, set the tone. Set the precedence for the new Kentucky football,’” Stoops said. “It was tremendous that he believed in us. That's what I told him. Thank you to him and his mother for the tremendous confidence and faith they have in us and this program to get this done. To sign a national letter-of-intent without even stepping foot on our campus says a lot about what he believes and the people that are here at Kentucky and the staff we've put together."
Defensive end was a major priority for Kentucky in the 2013 recruiting class. The Wildcats lose senior starters Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham at the position.
"He's a player who has tremendous physical gifts," Stoops said. "He's 6-5, maybe 6-6, and 250. A tremendous player. Like I said, an every-down guy who can be great agains the run and a great pass-rusher. Just an impact type of guy. For him to come in and address the situation at defensive end is very critical."
Kentucky also announced the signing of junior college tight end Steven Borden from Kilgore College in Texas. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound athlete is the son of former professional wrestler Steve Borden, who performed under the name “Sting.”
"We were very excited to get Steven and add him to our program," Stoops said. "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 to the top of the list because Neal Brown and those guys were already recruiting him to Texas Tech."
Borden caught 11 passes for 181 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore at Kilgore.
"I loved him," Stoops said of his reaction when first shown Borden’s film. "Thought he was a very versatile player."
Borden played quarterback at Santa Clarita (Calif.) Christian High School and was a defensive end at Southwestern Assemblies of God, an NAIA school in Waxahachie, Texas, in 2010.
Stoops said he enjoyed meeting Borden’s famous father during the family’s visit to Lexington.
“I asked him in the indoor (facility) if he wanted to throw down a little bit,” Stoops joked, “but he didn’t want any piece of me.”
Both Smith and Borden have two years of eligibility remaining. They will enroll at UK in January and participate in spring practice with the Wildcats.