The Kentucky defense got a big boost Friday when junior defensive end Za’Darius Smith returned to practice. The junior college transfer had missed almost two weeks of action due to a high-ankle sprain sustained early in fall camp.
“Za’Darius was back. He looked good. He really did,” UK head coach Stoops said.
The 6-foot-6, 254-pound Smith is expected to be an impact player for the Wildcats this season. He came to UK rated as the nation’s No. 1 juco defensive end prospect by many scouting services, and could team with Alvin “Bud” Dupree to give the Cats one of the best edge tandems in the talent-rich SEC.
Although Smith missed a lot of important reps and three scrimmages, both Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot downplayed the lost time.
“He won’t be far behind. No. We’ll get him caught up,” Stoops said. “He’ll be alright.”
"It felt good to get him back out there," Eliot added. "He did a good job for his first day back... He definitely could have developed more if he could have practiced, but he was probably furthest along as it was at defensive end going into camp, so I still feel good about it."
Dupree had 91 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks as a sophomore. Having Smith on the opposite end this season will force opponents into a blocking dilemma.
Eliot noted that "anytime you have two good edge rushers, it allows one of them to be single-blocked."
Smith has been feeling better for most of this week, but the UK training staff took a cautious approach before allowing him back on the field.
“He’s been close,” Stoops said. “He did have a high-ankle sprain, and those, you all know, are very touchy. Even when you’re feeling good, you get in there and start pushing on people, it gets a little bit hairy. We feel like he’s made good progress and feels pretty good right now.”
Smith and Dupree are expected to get the starting nod when the Wildcats open the season Aug. 31 against Western Kentucky. Junior TraVaughn Paschal and sophomore Farrington Huguenin appear to be currently running with the second-team defense. Freshman Jason Hatcher has also been cited for his strong play at times in fall camp.
Preparing for WKU:
The Cats have begun game preparation for the Hilltoppers. Stoops called today’s workout “a good practice” and said he was “very pleased” with the work UK got done.
Facing a team with a new head coach is a challenge, Stoops said. The UK staff isn’t sure exactly what to expect from the Bobby Petrino-led Hilltoppers in the opener.
“It’s hard to judge, scheme-wise, (because) we can’t look at them (on film),” Stoops said. “Really, you’re just looking at personnel and different people. The first thing you look at is (Antonio) Andrews, No. 5, and you see an absolutely fantastic football player. He’s a very good player, does a little bit of everything for them, and deserves all the accolades he’s been getting.”
Andrews, a 6-foot, 211-pound senior running back, rushed for 1,684 yards and 11 touchdowns last season. He also caught 37 passes for 432 yards and three scores. He had three touchdown runs (1, 1 and 2 yards) against UK last year, and threw the game-winning 2-point conversion pass in overtime to give WKU a 32-31 win.
Eliot said his top concern going into a game against a Petrino offense is being "fundamentally sound... They'll attack you at the right spots, so you've got to make sure that you're fundamentally sound."
Godby Awarded Scholarship:
Kentucky has placed walk-on center Max Godby a scholarship, Stoops announced Friday. The junior from Louisville has been running as the Cats’ first-string center in recent practices following injuries to Zach Myers and Jon Toth, and has played so well at times that he could emerge as the starter in the WKU game.
“I think the kids really respect him,” Stoops said. “He works really hard. He’s done a nice job.”
Asked what the reaction was to the news, Stoops added: “The team was excited. He was excited. It felt good. He looked emotional. You feel good about that. He’s worked awfully hard, and he deserves it.”
Stoops confirmed Friday that redshirt freshman defensive tackle Patrick Graffree intends to leave the program. The former Central Hardin standout announced via Twitter earlier in the morning that he was transferring to Eastern Kentucky University.
“That’s what I heard while I was out at practice,” Stoops said. “We wish Patrick the best. You can’t ask for a better person. I’ve learned to really appreciate Patrick and all the work he’s done for us, and I wish him nothing but the best.”
According to Stoops, Graffree came out of fall camp near the bottom of UK’s depth chart at defensive tackle and was unlikely to play this season.
“We had a talk with a lot of guys when we got through camp, where we’re at, and he may not have been happy with that,” Stoops said. “I understand that. I don’t want to get into detail on that, but I do wish him the best.”
Kentucky is blessed with an unusual amount of depth at a position which traditionally has been thin for the Wildcats. Seniors Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph are the expected starters in the 4-3 front with senior Tristian Johnson, juniors Mike Douglas and Christian Coleman, and redshirt freshman Thomas Chapman backing them up. Freshman Regie Meant and juco transfer Melvin Lewis may also be a factor this season, although the latter missed a considerable amount of camp waiting to be cleared by the NCAA.
“I think we feel pretty good about some of the guys we have,” Stoops said. “… Patrick would have had a hard time getting some playing time right now.”
Stoops also announced Friday that sophomore wide receiver Rashad Cunningham would not be playing for the Wildcats this season, but will remain on the roster and practice during the fall.
The 6-4, 216-pound Cunningham played in six games last season, but did not catch a pass. The Alabama native redshirted in 2011.