By Logan Lowery
STARKVILLE – There will be a bit of a teacher vs. apprentice battle Thursday night as Mississippi State hosts Kentucky.
MSU senior Denico Autry and Wildcat junior Za’Darius Smith were teammates on East Mississippi Community College’s 2011 national championship squad.
Autry was the headliner at defensive end for the Lions, notching 81 tackles, 11 sacks and 41 quarterback hurries that season with Smith as his understudy. Having played only one year of high school football, Smith was a sponge soaking up tips from the All-American.
Smith used Autry’s example to have a solid sophomore season of his own in Scooba last year with 47 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
“I had to grow up playing behind Denico Autry,” Smith said. “He was a really good player and I had to learn from him. I just grew up and since then I’ve been doing what I had to do.”
Autry is unsure how the introduction with his former teammate will go when the two meet again but is proud of his accomplishments this season.
“I’m just going to congratulate him and I hope he congratulates me,” Autry said.
Smith ranks sixth in the SEC with 4.5 sacks while Autry is still seeking his first of the year. The 6-foot-6, 265-pounder notched four sacks for the Bulldogs as a junior last season while also recording 42 tackles, 9.5 for loss, two forced fumbles and an interception.
“It’s shocked me,” Autry said of being held without sack this fall. “But I’ve got to keep working and keep getting better so I can get some.”
‘Love it here’
Autry was rated the No. 2 junior college prospect nationally by Rivals.com in 2012 and his offer sheet reads like a who’s who among college football.
Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Oregon, Texas, Texas A&M and Southern Cal were among the programs seeking his signature but he ended up right down the road from EMCC.
“I love it here,” Autry said. “This is a team that comes to work and I like the work ethic around here.”
The Albemarle, N.C., native was named team captain for his senior season and takes some of the responsibility for the Bulldogs 3-3 start. But Autry is confident his team has been able to correct some things to be successful down the stretch.
“We made some mistakes and I think that took a toll in some games,” Autry said. “But I think we’re getting the hang of things now so we should look good in the second half.”
With his time winding down and only six games guaranteed in his college career, Autry wants to finish strong to improve his odds of playing in the NFL.
“It’s hitting me that this is it,” Autry said. “I’m going to have to turn it up.”