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By LARRY VAUGHT
As far as Kentucky defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh is concerned, junior defensive end Za’Darius Smith is “right where he should be” with his development.
“I think right now he has seen the speed of the game and is now trying to understand how to transition to the pass rush off the play-action. Just the tempo of the game and how big and athletic these guys are is what he’s learned to handle,” said Brumbaugh. “I think he is right where I thought he would be.
“He has been working hard. He never has a fault about anything. I can get on him and he will go try to fix it. That is what I love about him. He is not a guy that is going to talk back and this and that. He is going to listen to what I tell him and try to utilize it and get better.”
Smith played for Brumbaugh at East Mississippi Community College in 2012 and was a second-team All-American after making 47 tackles, including 6.5 quarterback sacks. He was one of the high profile signees in UK coach Mark Stoops’ first recruiting class after Brumbaugh joined Stoops’ staff.
“One reason I came here is because I know what he (Brumbaugh) is about and he has a lot of technique work to help me,” Smith said.
Smith, who did not play football until his final year of high school, has 16 solo stops and 19 assists this season. He has a team-high 5.5 quarterback sacks.
He says there’s no reason for him to question Brumbaugh, a former all-SEC defensive lineman, or complain about what he’s told to do to improve.
“Coming out of Mississippi like I did, I had to be tough about it. My first time away from home and having him to coach me is a great feeling,” Smith said. “This year has been hard at times, but it is a team effort and we just have to keep working. There is still a lot to come from me just getting better at playing the pass and run.”
He says end Bud Dupree, who had 13 tackles at Mississippi State and has a team-high 6.5 tackles for loss, and tackle Mister Cobble have helped him the most this season.
“Just when it gets tough, they tell me to cool out and it will get better soon,” Smith said.
Smith can get a bit emotional when he makes a big play.
“When I was little, I always watched football on Saturday and just wanted to be happy and play in this league. Now I am here and just want to give it all I’ve got,” he said.
Brumbaugh says Smith has given UK all he’s had, including playing in pain and not complaining whether he’s asked to move inside or continue to play when he’s tired.
“He played a lot of reps (against Alabama) and never came off the field and said, ‘Coach, I can’t go.’ He knows and tries to give his all every time out there. He never complains and you respect that,” Brumbaugh said.
Smith’s name has been mentioned as a possibility in next year’s NFL draft talk if he decided to bypass his second — and final — season at UK.
“Sometimes I do think about the NFL, but Coach (Brumbaugh) tells me not to worry and just play football. That’s easy to do, too, because I have so much to learn,” Smith said. “We have plenty left to do here. I felt great about being here. I like life here. Sometimes the weather gets me, but life here is good. So there’s no reason to worry about anything in the future.”