When Bud Dupree walked onto Kentucky's practice fields four years ago, he was a 229-pound tight end from a tiny town in Georgia.
"I thought I was going to be a show-time guy, scoring touchdowns," the former Cats defender said recently.
Instead, Dupree became a show-stopper on the other side of the ball and has seen his NFL Draft stock skyrocket, with most projecting him as a first-round pick Thursday night.
The now 270-pound, speedy edge rusher could be Kentucky's first opening-round pick in 12 years.
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"I think God had a plan for me the whole time," he said with his usual wide smile.
Former UK coach Joker Phillips moved Dupree to defense, then current Cats coach Mark Stoops helped mold him into one of the elite defensive players in the Southeastern Conference the past two seasons.
"Bud brings an awful lot of value to a team," Stoops said this spring after fielding countless calls from NFL teams about Dupree. "He's extremely versatile. You've heard me talk about it over and over again, but he is."
Stoops, who will accompany Dupree to Chicago for the NFL Draft on Thursday night, said the defensive end could've played any of the Cats' linebacker positions or at either end spot.
"That's the truth, and he could play at an SEC level, at an all-SEC level," Stoops continued. "When you can play in the SEC and play at a high level at all those positions, then I think there's definitely a great spot for you in the NFL."
While initially a knock on Dupree, that so-called "tweener" status and some high-level NFL Combine numbers have helped him rise from a potential late first-round or early second-round pick to a possible top-10 selection.
His versatility has many NFL teams excited, and Dupree prides himself on it.
"I separate myself from the other tweeners in the class because I've played inside 'backer, and none of those guys have played inside 'backer," Dupree said at Kentucky's Pro Day.
"I've played with my hand in the ground and standing up for four years, so I know that I've got the game, more experience in those positions and those situations than any other guys have, so I just see myself separating on that level."
He also separated himself at the NFL Combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds and had a vertical jump of 42 inches, second-best among linebackers since 2006. Dupree's broad jump of 11 feet, 6 inches was tops at his position.
"His workout numbers are ridiculous," ESPN analyst Todd McShay said in a recent conference call. "God only makes a handful of these type of guys, so you have the tools there to develop, there's no question about it."
Former NFL coach and current ESPN analyst Jon Gruden called Dupree one of the top 10 players in the draft.
"We see all these quarterbacks in the NFL running around and scrambling," he said. "You need a Dupree who can find the guy with the ball to get there. This kid can get it done as a pass-rusher in a one-on-one situation, and if you have a creative defensive coach who can scheme some one-on-ones for Dupree, he will be a real problem for tight ends and backs to handle."
As impressive as Dupree is as a professional prospect, Stoops said every NFL coach and general manager has come to him with the same question about the UK team captain.
"There's a common theme," Stoops said. "Everybody is saying, 'Is he as good a kid as he appears?' He's done nothing but help himself both on the field and off. He's done everything right. Very proud of him. He's done nothing through these interviews and workouts except help himself.
Part of that includes getting his degree from Kentucky a week after the NFL Draft.
"It's kind of hard doing this and football," he admitted during the spring semester, which included interviews around the country with various teams during spring break. "But at the end of the day it's worth it. I just wanna see my mama happy."
If Dupree goes in the first round as projected, he will be just the second UK player in 16 years to go in the first round of the NFL Draft. The other was defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, who was picked fourth by the New York Jets in 2003.
Other UK prospects
After Thursday's first round, the draft will continue with the second and third rounds Friday night and rounds three through seven on Saturday.
Defensive end Za'Darius Smith, who was on Sports Illustrated's "All-Underrated Team" for the draft, is expected to be the next UK player taken.
"When I was watching Bud Dupree play for the Wildcats, Smith kept popping off the tape, as well," analyst Doug Farrar said. "He's a 6-4, 274-pound multigap player who looks best as a run-stopping end. ... Once an NFL line coach gets hold of him and squares away his technique, Smith could be special."
Smith, who was the defensive MVP at the East-West Shrine Game, is projected to be a third- or fourth-round pick. The former junior-college standout said he was excited to get started.
"I haven't been playing football for that long," he said. "I've been playing only five years. In high school, I played just one year because I was a basketball player. I really think I've got a lot of upside, so I just have to wait and see what happens.
"As long as I get my foot in the door, I'm going to work hard as I can each and every day."
■ Offensive lineman Darrian Miller, running back Braylon Heard, wide receiver Javess Blue and fullback D.J. Warren are candidates to be taken late on Day 3.
One other Kentuckian is expected to hear his name called on the opening night of the draft: University of Louisville wide receiver DeVante Parker.
The 6-foot-3, 211-pound Parker, who played high school ball at Ballard, is generally regarded as the third-best receiver in the draft behind Alabama's Amari Cooper and West Virginia's Kevin White, and he is projected as a middle-of-the-first-round pick.
Parker missed the first seven games of his senior season with a broken foot but returned to catch 43 passes for 855 yards and five touchdownsm and earn second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference recognition.