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Patient Smith returns to solidify defensive line

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Defensive end Za'Darius Smith returned to practice on Friday for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain early in fall camp. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Defensive end Za'Darius Smith returned to practice on Friday for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain early in fall camp. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Za'Darius Smith is a pretty imposing presence, but his 6-foot-6, 254-pound frame has been relegated to the sideline for most of fall camp.

The defensive end sustained a high-ankle sprain two weeks ago and the UK staff has been cautious with the first-year junior-college transfer. The process hasn't always been fun, but Smith knows he has been trapped in treatment for his own good.

"They did what they had to do," Smith said. "I got a little frustrated at first just because they said, 'You're not going today.' That's the first thing they told me, 'You're not going today.' And I was like, 'What?' So I kept my calm and I kept my cool just to know that I gotta get better."

But on Friday, Smith made his long-awaited return to practice. Continuing to take it slow, Smith worked with the first team on a limited basis as UK began preparations for its season opener against Western Kentucky University.

"He looked good," head coach Mark Stoops said. "He's been close. 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 and it's a little bit hairy. So we feel like he's made good progress and feels pretty good right now."

In spite of the time missed, neither he nor his coaches seem to be worried about Smith falling behind. He played under defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh last season, so he is familiar with the techniques he teaches. Besides, it's not as if Smith was sitting on his hands while he was away.

"I've been on the film and on the field watching them guys do everything, so I'm good," Smith said.

Listening to Smith speak, it makes sense that defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot describes him as a "good technician." Smith's four-star ranking according to most recruiting services was built largely on his physical gifts, but he uses terms like "six technique" and "A gap" freely. Having coached him at both East Mississippi Community College and during spring practice, Brumbaugh knows Smith to be an eager learner.

"He wants to be good," Brumbaugh said. "He listens. He doesn't talk back. And when you try to tell him something, he says, 'OK Coach, I understand,' and then he tries to go and fix it. When you have that with a guy, you have a special player."

Smith, however, is yet to realize his potential. Brumbaugh, having played in the trenches as a defensive tackle at Auburn, knows there's no substitute for in-game experience in the Southeastern Conference.

"This is a different league," Brumbaugh said. "Across the country, it's a different league. I played in it and I know it's a different league. The guys are physical and athletic and what you have to do is get in there and see where you are and compare your game."

Smith is surely eager to just that having been deprived from practicing for two weeks. Briefly, Smith's status for the opener seemed in doubt, but he's not thinking about that.

"That wasn't up to me," Smith said. "That was up to the coaches and how they wanted to play that out. But now I know that I'm back and we got eight more days until the game, man, I'm just preparing for it."

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