Scouting the Cats | Tight ends get 'hardest spot' in Kentucky football's offense

jsmith3@herald-leader.comAugust 17, 2014 

  • SEASON OPENER

    Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky

    When: Noon Saturday, Aug. 30

    TV: SEC Network

  • Scouting the tight ends

    The main man: With the graduation of four tight ends, the Cats are thin at this position but hopeful that Steven Borden will turn into a star for them. It took him a while to learn the position, but the junior college transfer had the light come on at the end of last season and is expected to be a difference maker this season.

    The supporting cast: Ronnie Shields has been a man in search of a position, but he'll be needed this season at tight end, where UK has him, Borden and Darryl Long (who seems likely to redshirt this season).

    Outlook: One of the most difficult positions to learn in Neal Brown's Air Raid likely will be utilized more often this season now that Borden and Shields have had a season to get better. As with most junior college transfers, Borden took a season to get seasoned and has become a bulky target for the UK quarterbacks, catching 90 percent of his passes in the preseason. Some extra offseason work has helped improve Borden's confidence and route running, too.

    JEN SMITH

  • This is the fourth in a series of nine stories analyzing the UK football teamposition by position.

So much has been made of quarterback Patrick Towles going out and getting extra help in the offseason to fix a dip in his throwing motion and improve his ability to run the offense.

But one of Towles' favorite targets during those tutoring sessions was Kentucky tight end Steven Borden, who also worked with offensive consultant Donny Walker to get ahead.

"We were together almost every time," Borden said of working with Towles. "We developed a little more chemistry. The more you get to throw and learn each other. It got to the point that we'd get out here and all the quarterbacks would be throwing I could tell when Pat was the one throwing the ball."

Borden isn't sure which of the quarterbacks will be throwing the ball his way come game time, but the junior college transfer is now much more confident that he will catch it.

In fact, he's much more confident in nearly every aspect of his game.

"I really started picking it up late last year," he said of last season, in which he had three catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. But nearly all of those yards (38) came on the score versus Alabama State.

"Coming into the Vanderbilt game, I really started coming along. I just needed that experience, I needed some time to pick up the game, even the basics of the game."

His coaches are more confident in their 6-foot-3, 246-pound tight end now, too.

"He's catching the ball at 90-some percent now," tight ends coach Vince Marrow said. "Last year, we targeted him in the 70s. He's a kid who works hard."

But the tight ends coach, who played that spot in the NFL, said it's understandable why it took extra time for Borden (who didn't play much tight end until he got to UK) to figure out the position.

"You gotta learn the passing game; you've gotta learn the running game, you've gotta learn the protection," Marrow said. "So there's a lot of things you've gotta learn. A lot of people don't realize how important tight end is to the offense."

Not to mention offensive coordinator Neal Brown wants players to learn it going 100 miles an hour with no huddle for a mental break.

"Back when I played, we still huddled," he said. "You've gotta go fast, learn all the signals from over here. I even say to myself, 'Man, that's hard.'"

Brown admitted that tight end is "the hardest spot to learn" in his offense.

"What we're asking Darryl Long, Steven Borden, Ronnie Shields at that position, it's the hardest thing to learn because they've got to know what to do as a slot receiver, as a fullback, and as a tight end," he said.

Long, the true freshman, likely will be red-shirted because of the learning curve with the tight end spot.

"Darryl Long is a very talented young man, but swimming because there's a lot of things you've got to learn," Marrow said.

In early August, Long said he has been able to pick up the route running, but the blocking is complicated and he's hopeful to gain more weight on his 235-pound frame.

"It's a lot of stuff to learn," Long said. "I knew Coach Brown's offense was real high-tempo and stuff, so I knew it was going to be a lot."

Long would love to play right away but understands that he might be a year away, adding that a red-shirt season would "help me out in the long run.

"I want to get on the field as fast as I can, but progress takes time, especially for a tight end," Long said.

That's something that Borden learned the hard way.

"You've got the slot receiver aspect, the tight end aspect and now the fullback added into it," Borden explained. "You've got to learn stuff coming out of the backfield. We're lining up all over the place. It's more complex than other positions on the field."

He's hopeful that he's learned more than enough now to be a factor in Kentucky's offense, which only got 26 catches from the tight end position last season.

The tight ends coach hopes for big things from Borden.

"He needs to really step up because he has the ability to really make this offense go from the tight end position," Marrow said.

Staff writer Ben Roberts contributed to this report. Jennifer Smith: (859) 231-3241. Twitter: @jenheraldleader. Blog: ukfootball.bloginky.com.

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