When Nolan Smith last publicly spoke before the 2022 NAtional Championship Game, he talked about leaving a legacy. Something he could point back to and one day show his future children about his time in Athens.
“You’ll be a Georgia legend no matter if you’re from inside the state of Georgia or outside of Georgia, you’re going to be Georgia legend,” Smith, a Savannah, Ga., native, said. “We came in to be legendary, be special, leave your mark. Like I say, I want to bring my kid back and tell him this is what I did.
“I want to leave my mark. I don’t just want to be another University of Georgia player.”
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Smith was already the voice of the Georgia defense, with many noting his energy and loudness at practice. Now he’ll get to be the face of a program defending a national title.
Think of what Jordan Davis did for Georgia this past year. Not so much in terms of on-field production or role but off the field. Directing the band after his final home game. The speech he gave at Georgia’s championship celebration. That is what Smith is stepping into.
From an on-field standpoint, Smith knows what he’s doing. NFL teams would like to see a higher sack total — he finished the season with just 3.5 sacks — heading as a senior. With no Nakobe Dean, Travon Walker and others the opportunities should be there.
But with all that Smith also does, there’s a real chance for him to play his way up NFL draft boards as well. Smith was not a first-round pick at this point and may not have even been a second-rounder. He’s shown though that he can elevate his game when needs to. Think of his two forced turnovers against Florida this year. Or his sack and two tackles for loss in the national title game.
If Georgia gets more games from Smith as it did against Michigan when Smith finished with a team-high eight tackles, a sack, a pass deflection and a forced fumble, there will be little doubt about where Smith will be drafted next season.
“We know we need to work, we know we have an opportunity of life,” Smith said prior to the rematch against Alabama. “And now that we’re here in the national championship, I think we bounced back pretty well. Now it’s time to go finish the job. That’s all it is that needs to be said and be done, go finish the job and finish what we started.”
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Georgia’s defense will look and feel very different next season. Dan Lanning, Smith’s position coach for the previous three years, is now the head coach at Oregon. Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp are set to be co-defensive coordinators, bringing their own twists to the defense.
The Bulldogs will also have at least seven new starters on the defensive side of the ball when they take the field against Oregon to open the 2022 season. Georgia could get some more veteran help in the event that Robert Beal and William Poole elect to return for their sixth years of eligibility. Chris Smith has already elected to do so, which should help a secondary that does return Kelee Ringo.
But Lewis Cine, Walker and Dean have already elected to forgo their senior seasons. Seniors Channing Tindall, Quay Walker, Derion Kendrick, Devonte Wyatt and Davis will also head off to the NFL. Georgia does have some exciting young players in Jalen Carter, Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Kamari Lassiter who are ready to take on larger roles, but to expect those three to be the next Davis, Dean and Kendrick immediately is a stretch.
Georgia did also sign one of the top recruiting classes in the country for this cycle, and the class is brimming with young defensive talent. Edge rusher Marvin Jones Jr., the No. 2 player at his position, should learn a lot from watching Smith do what he does next season.
While questions remain about Georgia’s defense next season, there shouldn’t be any when it comes to Smith’s abilities as a leader. He’s shown he can handle those duties and will have no problem doing so again for Georgia. His leadership might have to change given it is a younger team and it is one that is no longer chasing its first championship.
Because much like the Bulldogs now have a face of the 2022 team in Smith, Georgia already has a National Championship. Smith’s return helps their chances of chasing down a second in as many years.
“I understand guys leaving programs to go do bigger and better things and more playing time,” Smith said. “Football is a team sport. And I say it all the time it’s the ultimate team sport, you’ve just got to sacrifice a lot.”
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