This week Alvin Dupree took the honor of SEC Lineman of the Week. It was well-deserved. There's also a lot of well-deserved buzz about AJ Stamps and Josh Forrest's play. Quietly though, Za'Darius Smith is having a truly great season for the Kentucky Wildcats. His play on the defensive line is a big reason UK's defense has improved so much from last season.
Smith, as you may recall, was Mark Stoops first commitment. Stoops had just hired a staff, and was out looking for those prime JUCO talents that have three years of eligibility to play two seasons. He found one, and an early enrollee, in four star defensive end Smith. Smith had serious offers from Texas, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State among others, but he took a leap of faith and decided to build something at UK without any other commitments. It's helpful that Stoops had just hired his coach at East Mississippi CC to be his defensive line coach at UK, but his decision remains courageous, especially so given his other options.
Last season Smith had a decent, if unspectacular season. JUCO players typically take a year to adjust to FBS football, and Smith's performances confirmed he was a good player but still human. He finished the season fourth in tackles with 59 and was averaging 4.92 per game. He also had six sacks, but three of those came against lowly Miami (OH). Smith was still adjusting to the game, and SEC competition challenged him.
Flash forward to this season, and Smith is having the kind of year that many previously expected of him. He is tied for third in tackles on the team with 27, and is now averaging 5.4 tackles per game. That's the most of any defensive linemen on the team. While only sporting 0.5 sacks in five games, I've charted Smith averaging nearly 2.5 QB pressures per game. It's frankly amazing he only has 0.5 sacks so far, and I expect that to quickly change as that kind of streak can't continue.
Even more impressive is how Smith has flourished this year despite UK's move towards more of a 3-4 alignment. Now he regularly aligns head up on an offensive tackle, and he is responsible for the gaps on either side of the tackle. Last year, in the 4-3 alignment, he was typically on the outside shoulder of the tackle and set loose upon the quarterback. Even then he had a weakness stopping the run. Not anymore. This season, despite being asked to do more on the inside, he is flourishing. He's gotten so much better this season, even when he wasn't playing his best at times against UT-Martin and Ohio.
Three plays encapsulate for me Smith's season. The first play is against Vanderbilt. On a largely forgettable play Vanderbilt ran the ball off-tackle on a running down. Smith took on the offensive tackle head-up and pushed him back off the line of scrimmage, he then proceeded to make a one-handed tackle on the Vandy running back. Smith did not have that kind of power or strength last season. #Power
The second play was last Saturday against South Carolina. On a third down, South Carolina expecting a blitz, ran a speed option to Smith's side. After the lateral, running back Mike Davis turned upfield and dodged a tackle from Ashely Lowery, and was on his way for an even bigger gain, but Smith had turned upfield after the pitch and all 6'6'' 265 pounds chased down Davis from behind and made the tackle nearly 20 yards downfield. #Effort
The last play is on 3rd and goal against Florida. Kentucky is in Cover 0, so man-to-man without any safety support. UK is also bringing six defenders at Jeff Driskel putting the defensive backs on even more of an island.
Florida running back Matt Jones had beat Blake McClain, and Driskel only had to get him the ball for an easy touchdown. And yet, Smith was there to make a block that would make Willie Cauley-Stein envious. #Clutch
The Kentucky defense has improved a great deal this season, and is receiving accolades from media, fans, and coaches. Smith's consistent play is a major reason as to why. It's only a matter of before he gets a high-profile sack, or forces a turnover. Just don't be surprised. He's having his best season yet. More is in store for the rest of the season.