ATHENS – Everybody in Notre Dame Stadium saw it, and certainly anybody who was looking at the TV screen at that moment did, too. Remarkably, though, it went unnoticed by the guys in stripes.
Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush took off around left end on third down early in the third quarter. But as he’d experienced all night, he encountered Georgia’s Roquan Smith halfway between him and the first-down marker. Smith was matching Wimbush’s speed step-for-step toward the sideline when, quite suddenly, he ends up face down in the turf.
Fighting Irish running back Josh Adams wasn’t going to let the Bulldogs’ star linebacker rack up yet another stop. So he just tackled him. He just grabbed Smith’s ankle and held on until Smith was safely supine in the fake grass.
“That was crazy,” said Natrez Patrick, who plays alongside Smith at inside linebacker. “When I saw it in the game I didn’t think it was as dramatic as it actually was. He really tackled him.”
— Justin Hubbard (@JHubb93) September 10, 2017
Didn’t matter. The Bulldogs’ swift pursuit in the secondary led to Wimbush running out of bounds and the Irish settling for yet another punt. But the play dramatically illustrated what teams are experiencing about Georgia’s defense. The dude wearing the No. 3 jersey in the middle of it is all over the place.
You might be able to block him, but you probably won’t so you might just as well tackle him.
“The guy is fast,” Patrick said of his teammate. “I guess (Adams) was thinking he had to do something to get him on the ground. But that’s not legal.”
Said fellow linebacker Reggie Carter: “I guess that’s one way (to slow him down). Roquan’s a freak. He’s fast. He’s all over the field.”
There are a lot of reasons that Georgia’s defense looks like it might be of championship caliber this season, but Smith is the primary one. He’s a tackling machine sideline-to-sideline. He drops into coverage as well as any of the Bulldogs’ defensive backs. He can blitz through an inside gap before a tackle knows he’s coming. At 6-foot-1, 225 pounds, he’s stout enough to step up and meet a tailback in the hole.
Chiefly, Smith is just hard to block. In fact, most of the time he goes unblocked. That’s because Georgia’s defensive line requires the full attention of opposing offensive lines. While they’re busy deciding whether to double-team Trent Thompson or John Atkins or Jonathan Ledbetter, Smith is busy following the football and charting the quickest way to it.
And he usually gets there. With 13 tackles in the Bulldogs’ first two games, Smith is on pace to match his team-leading total of 95 last season.
“Oh, yeah, he’s a special player,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who doesn’t freely toss bouquets of praise. “I knew in high school he was going to be talented. That’s why he was so highly recruited.”
One of the favorite Next Generation pieces I’ve done for DawgNation was on Roquan Smith. It wasn’t because it was particularly well written (y’all have read enough of my stuff to know better). No, it was because of the unexpected pearls about Smith that it uncovered.
I drove down there to Montezuma, Ga., expecting to get one thing and ended up leaving with something entirely different.
I’d seen Smith’s notorious signing day video. You remember it, don’t you? Where he stood up, with ESPN’s cameras focusing in, and struggled to pull on a pair of blue-and-yellow UCLA gloves to announce he was “shocking the world” and going to play ball in California.
Of course, Smith never made it to the West Coast. Georgia coaches, then working for Mark Richt, alertly pointed out Smith’s position coach was about to leave to join the Atlanta Falcons. Smith held off, committed to the Bulldogs and actually never signed a national letter-of-intent. UGA couldn’t be 100 percent it had him until he enrolled in classes in June of 2015.
No, soon after arriving at Macon County High School, Smith informed me he was going to leave soon after school for his job. I asked him what he did. He said he drilled water wells. I asked him if I could come along. He said, “as long as it’s OK with Mr. Roy Yoder,” his boss.
I don’t know if you’ve ever found yourself in the middle of a soy bean field in Southwest Georgia on a summer afternoon, but it’s nowhere for a big-city reporter in khakis and a dress shirt to be. Smith and Mr. Yoder got a few good chuckles out of that.
But I learned a lot about Smith that day. I learned he wasn’t afraid to work or to get dirty. I learned he didn’t mind taking orders. I learned that he always said “yes, sir,” and “no, sir.” And based on the tasks he was charged with, I was deathly afraid he might show up at UGA without a digit or a limb. This was not a vocation for the meek.
Smith told me that day that the games for him were the reward. That’s when he gets to have fun. That’s the payoff for the hard work.
And that’s what the Bulldogs and their fans are seeing on Saturdays. There are bigger tests ahead of Smith and for this Georgia defense. Samford will try to advance the ball by throwing it all over the yard this weekend, but then Mississippi State will bring in Georgia-grown Nick Fitzgerald and one the SEC’s best offenses that will test this defense’s bounds.
But with Smith in the middle, the Bulldogs know they have a linebacker that’s going to be hard to block and will wreak havoc sideline-to-sideline if you don’t.
“We trust him out there on Saturday and we see it every day in practice,” Smart said this week. “So it’s not like when you go in the game you’ve got to worry about Roquan. He goes out there and plays full speed every day.”
Notre Dame can tell you all about that.
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