Smith was one of the country's top junior college players in 2012 out of East Mississippi Community College when he shocked many by committing to Kentucky over Mississippi State and Texas A&M. He decided to join forces with a new coach and a downtrodden program that had won a whopping four SEC games during the previous three seasons.
Smith wasn't around for the underwhelming era of Kentucky football under former coach Joker Phillips. He wasn't there for the lagging recruiting or the framework of a program that had very little business competing in the SEC. But he knows what that was like from listening to his teammates. The current direction of Kentucky football, from a perception standpoint, is a whole new world from what it used to be. That's especially true for players who've stuck it out since Day One.
"The guys that have been there, I can see even from when I first got there and when Coach Stoops first got there," Smith said at SEC Media Days on Thursday, "those guys weren’t the same as they are now."
|Aug. 30||UT Martin|
|Sept. 13||at Florida|
|Oct. 4||South Carolina|
|Oct. 11||Louisiana Monroe|
|Oct. 18||at LSU|
|Oct. 25||Mississippi State|
|Nov. 1||at Missouri|
|Nov. 15||at Tennessee|
|Nov. 29||at Louisville|
Smith and fellow defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree are two senior starters with two different experiences of the program's path. Unlike Smith, Dupree was around for the nitty-gritty of the Wildcats' recent failures.
But Smith and Dupree's goals are aligned for the growth of the Kentucky brand. Stoops's first campaign, a 2-10 season in 2013, might not look like a giant step forward for Kentucky, yet the feeling within the locker room tells a different story.
Dupree alluded to a time before Stoops when a sense of complacency had crept into the Wildcats' program. This wasn't the same complacency that Nick Saban rails about with his successful Alabama roster. Instead, some Kentucky players had come to terms with the program's bottom-feeding place within the conference. In the cyclical nature of the SEC, that wasn't a healthy atmosphere.
Now? Stoops and his coaching staff have resorted to convincing their players that the past no longer defines Kentucky. "Our coaches tell us each and every day, we ain't going 2-10 anymore," Smith said.
On Thursday Stoops echoed that sentiment during his time with reporters.
"We don't dwell on anything that's gone on in the past, anything certainly before I arrived at Kentucky we really don't talk about much," the coach said. "We all take accountability in wins and losses. We all accept that. Again, we've got to do whatever we can to put ourselves in a position to win."
Sometimes it's hard for Dupree to forget the past, but as he watches the program mold before his eyes, the notion of a contending Kentucky team becomes more realistic. The senior said players walk around with a legitimate belief in the SEC-caliber talent on the roster. That's become much easier thanks to Stoops's job on the recruiting trail -- this past February the coach hauled in the country's 15th-ranked recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. It was the highest-rated class in program history.
"Our coaches tell us each and every day, we ain't going 2-10 anymore."
– Kentucky defensive end Za'Darius Smith
Such national recognition is not only shaping the perception of Kentucky externally, but internally, as well.
"We have enough talent to win games," Dupree said. "Now, the big key behind it is, do we believe we have enough talent to win games? The mindset of a player going out on the field can’t be given by the coach. Even though the coach is telling me I can do it, if I don’t believe in my mind I can do it, it’s not going to happen.
"When I look around, other leaders on the team are helping install in people's minds that we can be the best. People are starting to buy in and make better things happen in practice and the offseason, as well as seeing our numbers rise in the weight room and testing numbers rise, as well."
Turning that mentality into wins is the bigger, more glaring obstacle for Stoops and the program right now. Dupree and Smith are certain to be two key cogs in that plan. The 6-foot-4, 264-pound Dupree has started 26 games in his Kentucky career and garnered All-SEC recognition in both of the past two seasons. Smith finished among the SEC's top 10 in sacks in 2013 with six, and Stoops said both stars have bulked up in the weight room this offseason. An immediate turnaround for Wildcats isn't likely -- this week SEC media picked the 'Cats to finish dead last in the East -- but the foundation is slowly being built.
As Dupree and Smith prepare to wrap up their Kentucky careers, the theme of the 2014 season just happens to mirror the goal for the Wildcats' duo. Kentucky's 2014 media guide bears the phrase, "Change The Game" on its cover, an ode to the rebuilding project undertaken by Stoops. As Dupree puts it, the Wildcats are working tirelessly on changing the game and the program for future players.
"We’re definitely trying to change the game, not only for our team but for our whole program," Dupree said. "This is my last year, so if we go to a bowl game and win a lot of games, it will only help the program. It will put them in contention for a national championship on down the road, too."