LEXINGTON (AP) — Kentucky defensive ends Alvin “Bud” Dupree and Za’Darius Smith could have tried to cash in on impressive junior seasons and entered the NFL draft.
Both ultimately decided they had to more work to do with a Wildcats defense that can certainly use their pass-rushing skills.
Smith and Dupree are back for their senior seasons, good news for Kentucky in many ways. The duo combined for 13 sacks — ranking top-10 individually in that category in the Southeastern Conference — 16 tackles for loss and 120 stops last season.
Dupree and Smith enter Saturday’s opener against Tennessee-Martin bigger, stronger and more familiar with Kentucky’s 4-3 base scheme. They’ve also filled the leadership void left by the departure of all-SEC linebacker Avery Williamson, critical for a defense that’s still young at many spots.
With the Wildcats seeking respectability after back-to-back 2-10 seasons, both wanted to be part of the uphill march.
“I pretty much had my mind made up to come back,” said Dupree, a preseason all-SEC second team selection after leading Kentucky with seven sacks and standing second on the team with 61 tackles.
“I wanted to get my degree and didn’t want to bail on the team. I had to finish some things and had some improvements to make. Plus, I want to go to a bowl game.”
Graduating was also high on Smith’s list of priorities that include building on his solid debut after transferring from East Mississippi Community College. Billed as one of the nation’s top junior college defensive line prospects when he arrived, Smith followed up with 59 tackles and six sacks.
Smith’s disruptive style even drew parallels to South Carolina counterpart Jadaveon Clowney, the No. 1 pick in last spring’s NFL draft. Surprised by the comparison, the 6-foot-6, 263-pounder’s focus has been establishing his own fearsome reputation.
“Last year was a learning experience for me, being my first in the SEC and getting everything down pat in the run game and the pass game,” he said. “Now, it’s more of translating and being better.”
Both expect to do so with more freedom, especially the 6-4, 264-pound Dupree. Though listed in the media guide as an end, the depth chart has him as the starting strong-side linebacker, a testament to his versatility.
Dupree’s preparation for both roles has included gaining 15 pounds to combat double-team blocking and improving his footwork to handle pass coverage. Smith has put in extra reps on the sled and the bags in hopes of creating moves to get around blockers.
Both have a mutual goal of making it hard for opponents to double-team either one of them.
“I really like the freedom,” said Dupree, who had a career-high 13 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss in a close defeat at Mississippi State last season.
“Last year, I did little things to confuse opponents and like to keeping them guessing because I’m able to get to the quarterback as well as cover the flat. Wherever the team needs me, I’ll play.”
That’s no small issue for Kentucky, which lost one of the SEC’s top tacklers in Williamson and is trying to build depth at linebacker and in the secondary. Having Dupree and Smith back has given the rebuilding Wildcats experience and leadership for their youngsters.
“Our players see those guys out there, they make plays, they’re consistent, they’re always there,” coach Mark Stoops said of the two on Monday.
“I’m pretty tight with my compliments and conservative when it comes to complimenting guys until they’ve proved it and earned it, but I probably haven’t complimented those guys enough to be honest with you.”
Also needing a face to sell the rebuilding program, Kentucky has been able to double down with Smith and Dupree as pitchmen on billboards, posters and pop-up ads. A huge banner featuring both drapes the south side of Commonwealth Stadium. The two often drive past a billboard with his likeness.
Said Smith, “I just look up every time and it puts a smile on my face.”
Both hope to smile even more by helping the Wildcats turn the program around.