Player Profile: Za'Darius Smith's Trip From Basketball To Football

Before Ravens rookie outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith was a football player, he was a monster on the neighborhood basketball court. 

He was the tallest kid in his high school, played center, gobbled up rebounds and dunked on kids.

Then Smith was humbled. During the summer before his senior year of high school, Smith moved up in competition level to AAU basketball.

"The guys were like 7-feet tall," Smith recalls. "I was like, 'Man, no rebounds!'"

Smith didn't have the ball skills to play guard. He wasn't tall enough to play down low. He came home and told his mother he needed to find another game.

He called it a "backup plan."

After years of keeping a healthy distance between football and her son, Sharon Smith caved.

"Well, I guess if that's what you want to do, let's see how far it goes," she told him.

Five years later, that "backup plan" is now a budding career. And it's amazing how far Smith has come in such a short period of time.

General Manager Ozzie Newsome made Smith the Ravens' fourth-round pick, No. 122 overall. Baltimore envisions him replacing departed pass rusher Pernell McPhee, and as a rookie that could have a big impact in his first year.

"I know it hit my mom harder than me," Za'Darius said of being drafted. "Just getting that phone call, she was like, 'Boy, all them years I didn't want you to play football, but now you're here. Look at you now!'"

Za'Darius started playing basketball in sixth grade. It was his first love, and he idolized LeBron James. That was just fine with his mother. As big as her son was, she envisioned football players as even bigger.

"It seemed like football players were always getting hurt," she said. "I didn't want nobody to hurt my baby. I never wanted him playing football."

Ben Blackmon, then head football coach at Greenville High School in Alabama at the time, had other ideas. For years, he had been subtly trying to convince Za'Darius that he could play both sports.

After AAU basketball and finally realizing he didn't have a future in hoops, Za'Darius came to Blackmon a few weeks before the start of the football season, asking if he could play. Blackmon talked to the other coaches and seniors to see if they minded if Za'Darius joined so late. They didn't.

Blackmon drew up a contract. It said Za'Darius would put in extra work starting at 6 a.m. before school to make up for the summer practices he missed. He would sit out the first two regular-season games. He would promise not to quit football to go back to basketball. Za'Darius signed it.

"Right then, I knew he was going to be better than everybody else," Blackmon said.

Turned out, Za'Darius wasn't the one Sharon had to worry about getting hurt. On the football field, Za'Darius was suddenly once again the big bully on the block at 6-foot-5 and about 240 pounds.

Blackman simply told him to get the opposing quarterback. With Za'Darius' athleticism, strength and quick feet, that wasn't a problem.

Sharon remembers Za'Darius playing in one high school game that was broadcast on the radio. Za'Darius' grandmother was listening at home and called Sharon on her cell phone, genuinely concerned.

She told Sharon to get Za'Darius on the bus and back to Greenville as soon as possible because the announcer kept talking about how he was beating up the opposing quarterback. Grandma feared repercussions after the game.

"He was so raw he had no idea what he was doing," Blackmon said. "But one game he came off the ball and took the left tackle and threw him into the quarterback and made the sack. I said, 'Woah, this kid is explosive.'"

Due to his late start in the game and subpar academic grades, Za'Darius wasn't able to go to a FBS (Division-1) college program. He would have to go the long way to the NFL.

Za'Darius ended up at East Mississippi Community College. He recorded 66 career tackles and 11 sacks, helping lead his team to a 20-2 record and the schools' first NJCAA national championship in 2011.

Za'Darius became ESPN's No. 10 junior college prospect, and suddenly was weighing offers from Kentucky and Texas A&M. He reportedly also drew interest from Florida State, Miami, Auburn, Missouri, Ohio State and Texas.

"He called me on the phone one day and said, 'Coach, I'm deciding which four-year institution I'm going to,'" Blackmon said. "I almost broke down crying. To know what that kid has been through and how much time we had put into it, it was amazing."

Za'Darius chose Kentucky and continued to build on his game opposite future Steelers first-round pick Bud Dupree. In two seasons, Za'Darius notched 120 tackles and 10.5 sacks.

Now Za'Darius is trying to make the next leap into the NFL. The Ravens haven't shied away from making comparisons to McPhee, a 2011 fifth-round pick, and Za'Darius is flattered by them.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I know that's something they want me to do is follow in that guy's footsteps, and that's what I'm going to do."

There's still a ways to go to reach McPhee's level. McPhee notched 7.5 sacks last year and got a reported five-year, $40 million deal with the Bears.

But McPhee and Za'Darius share a lot in common besides their appearance (they have similar builds, similar dreadlocks and both wear jersey No. 90).

They took similar paths to the NFL.  McPhee also went to community college (Itawamba) before heading to Mississippi State. He was also raw when he arrived in Baltimore, and had to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker.

They also both entered the league with a ton of upside.

"He has so much more growth in him," Blackmon said of Za'Darius. "And he's such a hard worker, he'll soak up everything he can to make him a better football player."

The big difference between Za'Darius and McPhee is basketball. So what's Za'Darius' outlook on basketball versus football now?

"Football," he said. "Football is where it's at."

Check out photos from Za'Darius Smith's collegiate career at the University of Kentucky.

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