LEXINGTON — Za'Darius Smith didn't touch a football until three years ago. Since that time, he's made a name for himself on the gridiron.
It was hard to notice Smith's lack of experience in Kentucky's annual Blue-White game Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The junior college transfer totaled six tackles, including one for a loss of five for the Blue squad, which edged the White team 24-23.
The crowd, the largest to witness a spring game in school history, didn't faze Smith, who was surprised by the attendance of 50,831 seeking a first-look at the new coaching staff and what to expect this fall. Smith admitted that his “heart dropped” as soon as he stepped on the field and admitted that he was “nervous” but “had to get over it and make plays.”
"I knew I could do it. I've just got to keep that motivation of making tackles and just keep working hard,” he said. “The guys were telling me they didn't have many at their spring game (last year) When I saw it on the web (that we were going to have) 50,000 (fans), I thought it was going to be exciting.”
Smith started playing football as a senior in high school at Greenville High School (Ala.) and competed for two seasons at East Mississippi Community College. Smith proved it’s never too late to make an impact.
Kentucky defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot wasn't surprised by the outing by Smith.
“Za'Darius has played well for us all spring,” he said. “He was fundamentally ahead of the rest of the guys and he continued to get better all spring. He's on his way to (becoming) a good defensive end for us. He just needs to keep working hard every day.”
Smith, a four-star recruit and one of the top junior college defensive ends in the nation last season, originally committed to Florida State, but changed his mind after Mark Stoops was hired to coach the Wildcats. He followed defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh from East Mississippi to Lexington shortly after Stoops arrived from Tallahassee.
Smith described Eliot and Stoops as “great coaches” and influential in his decision to attend Kentucky.
“The one reason I came here was because of them,” he said. “I know what they're about and I know how they run their defense. They do a good job of it and as you could see tonight, we made a lot of plays.”
If allowed to tackle quarterbacks Patrick Towles, Jalen Whitlow or Maxwell Smith, Stoops said Smith and Bud Dupree would “have caused havoc.” Smith admitted it was hard to hold back during the two-hour contest.
“It didn't feel great at all,” he said with a laugh. “The thing is, it's our quarterbacks and we have to keep them safe.”
Although he's already made an impression and ahead of his teammates in the defensive transition, Smith knows he has “to keep working” to get used to the faster tempo he expects to see in the Southeastern Conference.
“I'm just halfway there because it's just the spring,” he said. “I still have a summer (to go) and I have to get the fall going. I just know I have to make more plays (this fall).”