Kentucky football: Cats look to junior college ranks to bolster roster

jsmith3@herald-leader.comFebruary 7, 2013 

Not every player walks on his college campus and has a locker filled with Nike shirts and shoes.

Not every player has a comfy seat on a charter plane for his next road game.

Not every player starts his college career at a place like Kentucky.

"Sometimes it's a six- hour bus trip there and then six hours back," Randy Taylor, a national recruiting analyst, said about the life of a junior college player. "They may even be washing their own gear, who knows?"

Just seeing the other side makes junior college players who end up at places like UK a little more thankful to be there.

"It's like, 'Hey, I appreciate what I have here and I'm going to work my butt off; I've seen the other side,'" UK Coach Mark Stoops in a recent interview with the Herald-Leader.

That edge is part of the reason that Stoops has supplemented his first recruiting class — ranked No. 27 in the nation by one service — with four junior college players that the staff thinks will help the Cats get better immediately.

"You're getting a more mature guy at times, because he's been through some different situations and he's climbed out of them," defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh said.

Brumbaugh, who played in the Southeastern Conference, most recently was a D-line coach at East Mississippi Community College, where Stoops and staff found defensive end Za'Darius Smith, who will play at UK next season.

It wasn't a hard sell to get a player like Smith, the No. 10 overall junior college prospect in the nation (and No. 2 defensive end), according to ESPN, to come play for Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.

The two needed only to tell Smith the tale of Tank Carradine at Florida State.

"He's a remarkable story," Stoops said of Carradine. "He's a tremendous kid, tremendous player.

At Florida State, Stoops and Eliot persuaded Carradine, the junior college player of the year, to play for the Seminoles even though he had All-Conference defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner ahead of him.

Carradine ended up starting for the Seminoles (after Jenkins went down with an injury), and finished the season with 80 tackles, including 13 for a loss, 11 sacks and nine quarterback hurries.

Despite a knee injury at the end of the season, Carradine is likely to go in one of the NFL Draft's early rounds.

"He's just a great example because I loved how hard he worked on and off the field to be successful," Stoops said. "He was just a great team guy. He was just a guy who was a joy to coach. And there's many stories like that. ... You don't ever want to put limitations on kids. You know that. They just need an opportunity."

UK's new staff thinks it has found gems in its four junior college signees: Smith, tight end Steven Borden, defensive back Nate Willis and star wide receiver Javess Blue.

"I like some of these junior college kids he's bringing in," said Taylor, the director of recruiting for NCSA Athletic Recruiting. "It adds some experience to a young roster and the other young talent they're bringing in."

Taylor sees many of the players, like Blue, having an "immediate impact." They've seen things on and off the field that most kids just leaving high school have not.

"A lot of things won't surprise them," Taylor said. "All of that stuff lends itself to them being more hungry, more interested in wanting to be successful at this level."

Smith, Willis, Borden and Blue all were successful in junior college and hope it continues at this level.

Blue, a 6-foot wide receiver out of Butler Community College (where Carradine played), was rated the No. 14 junior college player overall by ESPN. He had 65 catches for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. The Florida native averaged 28.8 yards a kickoff return and 11.2 yards a punt return.

"A kid that we thought was the No. 1 junior college receiver in the country," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said of Blue, who caught 88 passes for 1,774 yards and 20 touchdowns, averaging 20.2 yards a catch, in his final two seasons at Lake Wales High School.

In Willis' two seasons at Arizona Western, the defensive back had 50 tackles, four interceptions, five pass breakups and a forced fumble. At least one service has him listed as the third-best junior college cornerback in the country.

Stoops said he's excited about the added oomph these four junior college players will bring to Kentucky's roster, but he doesn't necessarily plan to build a team around them every season, just continue to look for gems who can help.

The drawback to junior college players, Stoops said, is that "they have a great year and then all of a sudden they're a senior and they're out of here, as opposed to developing a freshman, a sophomore and just getting them in your program for four years."

Eventually, Stoops said, he plans to get the "right mix of fourth- and fifth-year players that are going to be great leaders."

Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241 Twitter: @jenheraldleader Blog: UKfootball.bloginky.com.

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