MOBILE, Ala.— Za'Darius Smith has come a long way since his days in junior college. In his two years with the Kentucky Wildcats, he separated himself from the competition as an edge rusher with NFL potential. As a senior in 2014, he notched 12 combined sacks/tackles-for-loss to go along with 61 total tackles.
Following his junior year, he mulled over the jump to the pros, even going through the NFL Draft evaluation process, but ultimately decided to return for his senior season. His invitation to play for the North squad in the Senior Bowl helps validate that he made the right decision to return.
And now, with the eyes of the NFL on him, he’s looking to capitalize and he’s enjoying the process of engaging with other top talent from around the nation.
“It’s been great, man,” Smith said. "Great experience. A great group of guys to be around, just to play with. Just to be here, man. Getting to show my talent one more time for these guys and putting on the pads.”
Officially weighing in Monday at 6-foot-4 ½ and 270 pounds, Smith has the physique and measurables that NFL teams covet. He also happens to have a knack for getting after the quarterback and being disruptive on the edge. His size also affords him the ability to be a stop-gap in the run game, holding down the edge.
But as a prospect Smith knows that he still has a lot to learn and he’s been eager to soak it all in. When asked what has impressed him the most working with coach Ken Whisenhunt and his staff, Smith talked about maturity and accountability, an answer that was a bit unexpected.
“Just the little stuff,” Smith said. “Being accountable. Not bringing your cell phone into meetings. Always being 5 or 10 minutes early when you’re supposed to be somewhere. Just being a ‘man’ about yourself and taking care of your business.”
So far, Smith has done just that – taken care of business. On Wednesday, he thrived in one-on-one drills and flashed in 7-on-7 drills. There’s no question that he looks the part. But there’s someone in particular he’s tried to model himself after on and off the field. A productive player on the gridiron and a classy one off.
“DeMarcus Ware,” Smith said. “I really look up to that guy. And I’ve been a Cowboys fan for a long time. He was great in Denver this year. It would be great if I could get to the Cowboys, and take some people’s spots (laughs).”
The Dallas Cowboys could certainly use some help in the pass-rushing department. Jeremy Mincey, a journeyman, was their team leader in sacks in 2014, and he only managed six. For Smith, it would be a dream come true to land in Dallas, but like all of the prospects at the Senior Bowl, his ultimate goal is to hear his name called on draft day, no matter which of the 32 NFL teams it is.