Ravens fourth-round draft pick Za'Darius Smith decided to play football when he concluded that getting to the quarterback was much easier than getting a rebound against guys much taller than him.
"My senior year of high school, I played AAU basketball. I was a center and guys were like 7 feet tall," Smith said today after the first on-field workout of the Ravens' rookie minicamp. "I was like, 'Man, no rebounds. I can't get [any] rebounds. I've got to come up with a backup plan.'"
Smith turned to football and the Ravens are glad he did. They selected him with the 122nd overall pick last Saturday, believing that the University of Kentucky outside linebacker/defensive end could replace some of Pernell McPhee's production and give them a young pass rusher to groom behind Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.
Smith had 10 ½ sacks and 120 tackles in two seasons with the Wildcats, while rushing across from Bud Dupree, who was picked in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers last week. The Ravens love Smith's upside and physical attributes.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh, who normally stays away from comparisons, acknowledged that McPhee was the first player he thought of after watching Smith and it wasn't just because both had dreadlocks and similar builds.
Smith has "the physicality, the heavy hands, the high motor," Harbaugh said last week. "He has pass-rush ability, even maybe more so than we saw from Pernell coming out. He has hips and he can get around blocks. If he develops like Pernell did, we're going to have something."
Since his focus was on basketball, Smith didn't start playing football until his senior year at Greenville High School in Alabama. He proved to be a quick study, becoming one of the nation's top junior college prospects while at East Mississippi Community College. In two years at the Scooba, Miss., school, Smith had 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss before transferring to Kentucky.
Smith, who is 6-4, has put on 40 pounds of muscle – he now weights 275 – since making the transition to football.
"I'm still learning the game, but everything is starting to come natural now, just because me playing in junior college and me going to Kentucky," Smith said. "Coming here, man, it's very easy."
Rookie minicamp is essentially an orientation for the Ravens' newcomers. They get to know one another, start getting used to the pace of practices and the required time commitments, and learn the lay of the land at the Under Armour Performance Center. It's good preparation for the organized team activities, which will begin later this month.
Smith said his current focus is on learning the playbook and adjusting to a new position. He was a defensive end at Kentucky, but Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said the team hopes Smith can back up Suggs at rush linebacker. If he's effective, the Ravens could also move him around, like they did with McPhee, who parlayed a 7 ½-sack season into a five-year, $39 million contract with the Chicago Bears.
"I know that's something they want me to do, follow in that guy's footsteps," Smith said, maintaining that the comparisons to McPhee don't bother him. "That's what I'm going to do. I'm going to play my role at the outside linebacker position and do my best."
Smith said the rookies watched film Friday morning and he found himself trying to focus on McPhee. The rookie will also wear McPhee's No. 90 after Smith learned that his preferred No. 94 was taken by third-round pick Carl Davis, a defensive tackle.
"We … [have] sort of the same dreads, same height, same size. We really look alike," Smith joked of McPhee.
Smith started every game at defensive end in his two seasons at Kentucky, and was also a force against the run. In his junior year, he was third on the team with 59 tackles, including 6 ½ for loss. His senior season, he posted 61 tackles, including 7 ½ for loss.
His stock rose in the pre-draft process, as Smith was the Defensive Most Valuable Player of the East-West Shrine Game and ultimately earned a late berth to the Senior Bowl. Smith wasn't sure when he'd get drafted, but getting that phone call last Saturday from the Ravens justified his decision to pick football over basketball.
"I know it hit my mom harder than me," Smith said. "Just getting that phone call, she was like, 'Boy, all those years I didn't want you to play football, but now you're here. Look at you now.'"
Smith, who said the footwork he learned in basketball has eased his transition, is only looking forward now.
"My coach always told me, 'Go get the quarterback, go get the quarterback.' I did a great job at it," Smith said. "I said this is something I want to pursue my career as. Now I'm here. … Football is where it's at."