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Bengals have an eye on Kentucky pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Za'Darius Smith's best football may still be on the horizon.

Reminiscent of Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt, Smith was a relative late-comer to the sport. Unlike Hunt, who spent most of his pre-football years participating in Olympic-style field events, Smith grew up playing basketball. It wasn't until his senior year that he ditched the hardcourt for the pigskin.

In the five years since, Smith has gone from virtual unknown to a significant blip on the radar screens of numerous NFL teams. The Bengals are one of them, he said.

According to Smith, AFC North rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore are among the teams that have been talking with him in recent weeks. In addition to the Ravens, he already has future visits set up with the Falcons and Bears, too.

"A lot of teams see me as a third-round guy," Smith said Thursday at the University of Kentucky's pro day. "[But] as long as I get my foot in the door, I'm going to work as hard as I can."

Smith's ultimate goal is the same one hundreds of other draft prospects share: to go from virtual unknown to household name.

"I really think I've got a lot upside," he said.

Smith spent his first two college seasons in junior college at East Mississippi Community College. There, he recorded 11 sacks and 18 tackles for loss before getting tabbed the nation's No. 2 junior college defensive end by ESPN entering the 2013 season. After enrolling in Kentucky that year, he went on to post 10.5 sacks, three pass breakups and 14 tackles for loss in his final two college seasons.

His focus Thursday was to trim his time in the 40-yard dash (4.83) he had at the NFL combine last month.

Mission accomplished. He said he was told he ran a 4.72 at the pro day.

When it comes to pass-rushers in Kentucky's system, it's been easy for Smith to be forgotten because of likely first-round prospect Bud Dupree. The hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2014.

While Dupree was rotating between playing off the line and standing up behind it, Smith was primarily a pure hand-on-the-ground rush end. He also has the versatility and size at 6-foot-6 and 274 pounds to move to defensive tackle in certain nickel packages and passing situations.

In Cincinnati, Wallace Gilberry has been playing a similar role. With the ability to be an interior rusher in the Bengals' nickel package, Gilberry moves regularly from the edge to the inside. Perhaps it's little surprise then that according to Smith, he and Gilberry have talked at times this offseason.

If Smith were drafted by the Bengals, he would have a natural connection with his fellow Alabamian, Gilberry, a lineman who could be playing for his job in 2015. Gilberry will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason.