Dupree plans to lead SEC in sacks, Kentucky to new heights

Not only can Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith lead the SEC in sacks in 2014, they could help propel Kentucky's defense from obscurity to weapon.

Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith should wreak havoc on SEC quarterbacks in 2014, as one of the best defensive end tandems in the country.

Mark Zerof / USA TODAY Sports

HOOVER, Ala. -- Bud Dupree was a little miffed.

He never said exactly who his displeasure was directed at, but the Kentucky defensive end said he, and fellow defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith, have a chip on their shoulders, and will play that way this season because of the lack of respect they've been shown this offseason.

"People put so many other people on top of the (projected sack) list, even though we were on top of everybody who's coming back. People are still in front of us in the sack category, defensive end wise in the SEC, which is motivation for us to go out there and grind."

Dupree finished sixth in the SEC in sacks last season with seven, while Smith had six and finished in 10th place. Because every defensive end that finished ahead of Dupree is now in the NFL, he should be the heir apparent to the sack crown. Smith should be close behind, since only Georgia linebacker Leonard Floyd is still in the conference, and finished with more sacks in 2013 than Smith.

Devoid of official, or unofficial 2014 sack projections, Dupree may be distraught to see names like Floyd, Vanderbilt's Kyle Woestmann and Markus Golden of Missouri getting more love. Members of the media who voted on the preseason All-SEC teams at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., may also have left Dupree and Smith feeling snubbed, so to speak.

Alabama defensive end A'Shawn Robinson and Florida defensive end Dante Fowler were both on the All-SEC First-Team. Dupree landed on the Second-Team, while Smith wasn't present on any list.

Dupree said the goal for the 2014 season is to finish No. 1 in sacks. He said "we" when he was putting his goals out on the table. So it's possible he plans to share the conference lead with Smith. But it's more likely Dupree said "we" because of how much these bookend defensive ends play off one another.

When Mark Stoops took over at Kentucky, he knew the job of turning the football program around wasn't going to be easy. But getting competitive in the SEC means producing on the defensive front, and the Wildcats have two pieces in Dupree and Smith, that can wreak havoc.

"They're what you want your defensive ends to look like in the SEC, said Stoops about his dynamic pass-rushing duo. "I think both of them had a chance to go to the NFL last year. They looked at it, and both chose to come back. (I'm) very thankful we have those guys this year."

Thankful indeed.

Stoops will undoubtedly expand on the roles Dupree and Smith play in the Kentucky defense. A Stoops defense is designed to be multiple; to give different looks both up front and in the secondary. The fact that Dupree is so versatile, and both he and Smith have wrecking-ball attack skills, when Stoops sits down to finds ways to effectively place and move the defensive ends in his scheme; Stoops will feel like a chess master.

Dupree said he thought Stoops would build the 2014 defense around he and Smith, featuring their pass-rush skills to torment opposing quarterbacks. Smith agreed, and said that was a good plan--and to expect both defensive ends to flourish at different times, because no offensive line has the resources to double both players. Teams are going to have to pick Dupree or Smith to focus on, leaving the other to run wild, one-on-one against an offensive lineman.

"I think me," said Smith when asked who got double-teamed more last season, he or Dupree. If that's the case again, watch Dupree make good on his goal to lead the conference in sacks. If team's double Dupree, Smith now has the experience to make teams pay.

Stoops said Smith is "getting better and better each and every day," after just one year in the SEC. Smith came to Kentucky after playing at East Mississippi Community College, where he compiled 6.5 sacks in 2012 and helped his team win the NJCAA national championship.

While Stoops should make every effort to get Dupree and Smith as many opportunities to rush the passer as possible, Stoops said he also plans to utilize the versatility of Dupree, who came to Kentucky as a tight end, moved to outside linebacker, and then to inside linebacker before settling at defensive end.

"He's (Dupree) very good with his hand in the dirt playing defensive end, but you can also stand him up and move him around a little bit in the 3-4 and play some linebacker," said Stoops. "(He's a) very versatile player, very instinctual."

It's possible that the versatility comes from being moved around so much during Dupree's early time at Kentucky. But Dupree gives Stoops a majority of the credit for turning him into a pass-rusher.

"My sophomore year I played inside linebacker," said Dupree. "So, I had to develop pass-rush moves fast. When they (Stoops and the new coaching staff got here), I developed a lot of them quickly, and used my speed to my advantage. Coach Stoops put me in a lot of situations, and a lot of schemes to make sure I'm using my abilities to my best."

Dupree will grow a lot more this season under Stoops' defensive tutelage, as will Smith. And because both should have so much success attacking opposing quarterbacks, Kentucky should do a much better job keeping points off the scoreboard. In the SEC, speed on the edge of the defensive line, and attack capability from multiple fronts is a great way to quickly improve. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam showed just that at Missouri last season.

Dupree and Smith might not lead Kentucky to the top of the SEC East like Ealy and Sam did at Missouri, but they both could easily lead the SEC in sacks, and play an important hand in a vastly improved defense at Kentucky.