MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The day Maurice Smith graduated from Alabama, he marched to the office of the man he was fighting with: Nick Saban. The two were locked in a public feud over whether Smith would be able to transfer to Georgia, but every Alabama football player who graduates is supposed to have their picture taken with the head coach, so Smith was determined.
He and his family waited outside while a team official went to Saban’s office. The wait was long. But the signal finally came, Smith went in, the awkward picture was taken. A few days later Smith and his family would become the only team to beat Saban this year.
In a Georgia season that had few great stories on the field, Maurice Smith is an exception. He may be the best story: Out of nowhere to team captain, starting every game, arguably the defensive MVP, if not the team MVP.
Yes, he could be getting ready for the playoffs now if he had stayed at Alabama, rather than the Liberty Bowl. Smith doesn’t care. He already got his championship ring. He wanted to play. And he did that.
“I can’t complain about anything this season,” Smith said. “I think everything that happened this year I was looking forward to. God had it in store for me. I just really appreciate everyone that got me here to this point.”
After everything Smith went through to get to “this point,” the football season was easy.
The refresher for those who need it: Early last summer Smith, who had started just two games in three years at Alabama, informed Saban he wanted to transfer upon graduation. Saban reluctantly agreed, but put in a block to other SEC schools, including Georgia – where Smith’s former defensive coordinator (Kirby Smart) and secondary coach (Mel Tucker) had moved on to promotions. They wanted Smith, and he wanted Georgia.
At first the fight played out behind the scenes. Smith alleged his locker belongings were thrown in the trash. He was temporarily banned from Alabama’s facility. Preseason practice began at Georgia, and Smith was still stuck in Tuscaloosa.
Finally, Samyra Smith went public, and the pressure built on Alabama, which finally released him. The SEC agreed to a waiver of its inter-conference transfer rules, putting stipulations on Smith, such as that he had to get his graduate degree within two years, or Georgia would face consequences.
Smith showed up at his first Georgia practice on a Saturday. And he hardly waited to assert himself.
“He was very demanding in practice – especially early in camp,” Smart recalled this week. “I thought, man, too much stepping out of your comfort zone, you’re around people you don’t now, but he knew a standard of work habits, and he wanted everybody to go to his level.”
Smart admits now he wondered what the “dynamic” would be between Smith and his new teammates.
“I probably didn’t think he’d ever become a captain,” Smart said. “I thought there might be a jealousy factor, there might be he got a little hint of push-back because they saw him as my guy. …
“(But) I knew Mo. I knew our team. I knew Mo really well – better than I knew some of our team, having recruited him and known him so long. I just knew the character the kid had, and I said: This guy’s going to walk in this room and earn the respect of everybody within days.”
Two days before Georgia’s season opener, Smith was named the starting nickel back, supplanting sophomore Rico McGraw, who has since decided to transfer. After some rough patches the first two games – perhaps expected for someone who hadn’t played much before – Smith had great games against Tennessee and Auburn, with his pick-six turning around the Auburn game. When Georgia pulled off the upset, Smith and Smart ran off the field, embracing.
Smith’s final game of his short Georgia career will be Friday, against TCU in the Liberty Bowl. A couple days beforehand, he reminisced about the tough lead-up to his sterling season.
“During the summer I was on my own, had to work myself out, didn’t have anyone to train me. Didn’t have too many resources, didn’t have a weight room, I had to use the rec (center),” Smith said. “Coming to now, all that paid off. This is fun now. It’s work, but at the same time this is my passion, this is something I love to do. So it’s not necessarily hard.”
What does he think when he sees his former Alabama teammates getting ready for another playoff, while he’s not?
“Oh I’m happy for them,” Smith said. “We talk every day. I just spoke to them a couple minutes ago. Even though I’m not with them, we’re in a different bowl game, I still believe God has this for me, and there’s no place I’d rather be. Regardless of the playoffs, national championship, I’m just glad to be a part of this team.”