Nolan Smith …. from “Baby Boy” to Bulldog
EDITOR’S NOTE: This extended Nolan Smith profile kicks off a special series in partnership with Georgia Farm Bureau profiling homegrown talent from the State of Georgia. To access other HomeGrown Talent articles please visit the series hub on DawgNation.com
Nolan Smith belongs on a football field. His first spring practice at Georgia is simply the most recent entry for that ledger.
Smith belonged as a rare junior at the Opening finals in the summer of 2017. It was no different than his freshman slate at Calvary Day in Savannah. He picked up his Georgia offer on the famed “93KDay” that kicked off the Kirby Smart era in Athens. The year was 2016. It was his first offer.
He grew up a believer in that line which goes something like “Georgia boys should stay home and represent the home state” that’s been echoed by several Bulldog signees in the past.
He enrolled in January. His work from this spring is fresh. The Flashes and Moments.
Scouts might treat those as proper nouns. Especially how Smith can Flash. Even as the degree of difficulty in his career path keeps ratcheting up.
That was him crashing into Georgia All-American candidate Andrew Thomas. Thomas is as strong as a player as the Bulldogs will suit up in 2019. But there were some plays where the protection called for the front to get help on Smith’s side, too.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart offered up a blunt assessment of Smith in a spring media session. This wasn’t even the time he connected the freshman with “Superman” plays and then some not-sure-he-knows-what-he’s-doing-yet-reps either.
“Nolan plays hard all the time,” Smart said. “He doesn’t always play smart but he plays with great effort and does a good job.”
The key phrase was “does a good job” from Smart.
Veteran correspondents tend to reach for a Q-tip when hearing that about freshmen early enrollees. Especially for teenagers who will play in the box for a defensive-minded coach like Smart.
Nolan Smith has been dreaming of his first college season
Maybe a receiver can earn that praise. Or another talented tailback. But not at a spot that requires more mental reps. The Georgia defensive playbook is tougher to absorb.
Smart’s words — filtered through years of listening to coaches cut block the hype train for young players — did mean something. The “Georgia Way” is to earn it first. Especially for those who have yet to do anything in the Southeastern Conference.
Smith is not going to leap tall buildings in single bound or take down The Night King in Week 1 at Vanderbilt, but he will help in 2019.
The reasons why are found all over his young career. He left Savannah after his sophomore season for IMG Academy. It took him more than five hours away from his Savannah roots.
“Savannah doesn’t really have that true tough competition around there,” his mother Chakeima Thompson said back on January 15, 2017. “There is more competition at IMG. My son’s dream is to be a true freshman that plays when he goes to college. When he decides which college he wants to go to.”
Smith wants not only to contribute as a freshman, but to be a leader in Athens. He just doesn’t want to be the only one in another hyped signing class.
“I tell them all the time we all have got to be leaders,” Smith said back in January on the 2019 class. “Not just me. Not just one or two. That’s how we will win a national championship while we are all here. You do your job. Everyone does their job and then you have some guys who make some extravagant plays.”
Count on Smith to deliver his share of those.
Nolan Smith and his “Baby Boy” years
When he enrolled at IMG Academy in late January of 2017, he was just a highly-athletic kid from Savannah. IMG told him it would make him a lot better. And it did.
Smith left as the consensus No. 1 player in the country via the 247Sports Composite ratings. IMG brings talented kids to Florida every year to play a national schedule built to win a mythical national title.
Instead of seeing maybe 1-2 future big-time college players on the field for maybe eight quarters in an entire season, it promises 40 of those at every practice. At least.
Elite players enhance one other by going against other top talents in practice each day. That’s why Georgia recruits so well and will continue to do so. Great recruiting improves the team in practices before the fans ever see it in games.
It didn’t take Smith long to belong at IMG.
“Even when he first got out here, he immediately jumped out,” IMG Academy defensive line coach Ernie Logan said. “He was busting his tail during my drills but I noticed him doing special team drills.”
“He was showing up everywhere. I could tell soon as I saw him out on the field and the way he worked and how he went about his business he was a natural leader. He started displaying those qualities from the beginning. I made sure to pull him aside and say ‘Look, man don’t let what class you are in or you just getting here dictate how you see yourself on this team as a leader. You can lead now. You are showing those types of qualities.’ He started shining as soon as he hit the field man.”
Logan is a fan of nicknames. He started calling Smith “Baby Boy” because he was one of the younger guys in his defensive line room. That was the same nickname he had for former NFL All-Pro John Abraham when they played together on Sundays.
Inside the mind of Nolan Smith: What is he like?
DawgNation reached out to more than 20 people who know Smith well.
“Nolan was always a happy kid,” his mother said. “He came in the world smiling with those little Asian eyes.”
Other elite talents, even in an ego-driven culture, were drawn to him. Not just because of the 5-star skills. The term “instantly likable” gets thrown around too casually in athlete profiles, but it fits here. He has a charisma and an easy magnetism.
When asked to come up with five words to describe Smith, here’s a collection of the ones which stood out.
These terms were used more than once: Beast. Competitive. Different. Energetic. Intelligent. Loud. Opinionated. Physical. Special.
That’s the football side. The Georgia freshman also has a life away from those white lines.
Smith makes a point to feed the homeless every Christmas back in his native Savannah. That’s not the only church work he does.
At the lowest point of my life nobody was there but God to get me out; and I Thank him for that! So now that he brought me up, I REFUSE TO LET YALL bring me down…
— Nolan Smith II (@SmithNoland2) June 26, 2019
He turned 18 in January. One of his mother’s proudest moments came when he called to say she was now talking to her first child. The one who was now an early high school graduate.
It led to tears.
“Where we are from so many kids never finish high school,” his mother said. “And I have a young black man who finished high school [half a year] early when you have so many people in your ear saying he will not be anything and I owe it all to God.”
Smith reflects the worth of education in her words. When asked to peg the moment where he would first feel like a college player, he pointed to his first class at UGA. He aims to be an engineer.
He had to be accepted into Georgia and then into the growing engineering school.
“I thank God for giving me a son like him because there were so many people that doubted me about why I didn’t let him play with certain kids outside,” his mother said.
When he was younger, he would always urge her to take him to the big football camps. Atlanta. North Carolina. Tennessee.
“Nolan was that kid who put Google to work,” she said. “He would do all the research on his own. He would google different area football camps across the state and sometimes in other nearby states.”
Clemson was after him hard for a while. Alabama also wanted him. Did she ever think he was going to break his near 700-day commitment to Georgia?
“No,” she said. “He loves his state.”
A lot of those close to him felt that way.
“That’s been his home for a long time,” Auburn freshman Keiondre Jones said. “I’ve known him since the sixth grade. No matter what some people were saying I always knew he would stay home. He loves it there. His momma loves it there. They love him there. He just wants be a Georgia boy and play for his home. He always knew that was where he wanted to be.”
What motivates him? DawgNation will likely approve of that answer.
“Hitting that quarterback and winning that ring to bring UGA two [national] championships,” his mother said.
Nolan Smith: Immediate impact at IMG
When Logan analyzes Smith, he does so with a keen football mind. Logan played nine seasons in the NFL.
His career was extended by bringing the energy and effort that caught the eyes of both Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells. He would become Smith’s primary mentor and teacher at IMG.
There was an impressive array of talent at IMG for Smith’s junior season. The Ascenders saw 10 players off that defense sign with Power 5 schools.
Everybody there was “the guy” back home. They arrived with big-time offers, but transfers come to IMG to either get exposure or to get exposed.
“He played his junior year with seven other defensive linemen who went on to Power 5 schools,” IMG coach Kevin Wright said. “He was the only underclassman.”
That front seven included signees at Alabama, Clemson, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Ohio State.
“It was maybe as talented as a defensive line group as has ever been assembled at a single high school in a single year if you think about it,” Wright said. “Everything he got with playing time, he had to earn.”
There were also five Power 5 signees off the offensive line at IMG that season, including the nation’s No. 1 center.
Alabama would call IMG and ask for practice tape of those battles in the trenches. The Tide felt it got better evaluations watching IMG practice than seeing them on Friday nights.
The Ascenders saw 16 members of that class start at least one game last fall at a Power 5 school. In that climate, Wright never remembers Smith missing a workout, major practice reps or a meeting.
Smith took special teams very seriously. He routinely made big plays in that phase of the game, but everyone was watching him at the weak-side defensive end spot.
Clemson’s Xavier Thomas was rated as the nation’s No. 1 senior DE. The 247Sports Composite also had him as the nation’s No. 3 recruit. He was just behind two guys named Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields.
Taron Vincent was there. The son of former NFL vet Troy Vincent rated as the nation’s No. 1 DT and the No. 20 overall prospect. Those were two Alphas. Both were older than Smith.
Vincent won the Defensive MVP that year. He was also named the National Defensive Player of the Year by The Maxwell Club. Smith went on to win that trophy after his senior year, too.
IMG wound up counting three Alphas on the line that year.
“Nolan was second in stats,” Logan said. “I mean his stats were better than what Xavier [Thomas] had. He was performing and taking care of business on the field with guys who were older than he was. But he didn’t take a back seat to any of those guys.”
His first-year feeling at IMG parallels his first spring in Athens. A lot of talented guys. Older guys. But Smith was already proving he belonged.
When all of those guys left after his junior season, the talent level on the line dipped for his senior year. Smith still showed something else that fall, too.
Smith has always Flashed a high football I.Q. but this was a more of a team-centric skill. He played with a broken finger and would hold others accountable.
“He was a team leader and I think he stepped up more as a leader in all aspects his senior year once he knew we needed him to take on more responsibility and more weight on his shoulders, too,” Logan said.
What Nolan Smith can be in his first year at UGA
“I know this,” Logan started off. “The kid works his tail off and has qualities you can’t really coach. Competes and competes his tail off. Has what you call that ‘Dawg’ in him.”
Smith could roll out the same move every Friday night snap and win. Dominate even. That was true even while playing a national travel schedule at IMG.
But that won’t work in the SEC. It was certainly not going to work on the practice field clashing with that talented O-line in Athens.
Smith was often seen working on his silver and bronze medal moves during his junior and senior years at elite camps. He was busy expanding the inventory in his arsenal even then.
His best highlights from last fall came in practice against Evan Neal. He is now a freshman at Alabama. Neal was 6 feet, 7.5 inches tall and about 360 pounds. He was the No. 1 overall tackle for 2019.
Those two would go at it every Tuesday and Wednesday. Neal won some of those battles, but Smith rarely let the much bigger man overpower him. He would get on him, engage, lock him out and get off that block and into his gap.
“I’ve seen him handle Evan Neal like he was a sack of potatoes,” Logan said. “At times.”
It ranks with some of the freakiest things he ever did at IMG.
“Evan Neal is going to be an NFL offensive tackle,” Logan said. “He would get on Evan Neal and disengage and sometimes throw that big man to the ground. I have no doubts [Nolan] will hold up in college ball against the run. People don’t realize just how good of a player Evan Neal already is.”
Neal has an idea of what Smith can do in the SEC.
“Nolan is just going to dominate,” he said. “Simple, man.”
Smith is not a finished product. He needs to keep developing. Like all players. Perhaps an inside counter move will help him best. Logan feels he will need that to find a new level to his game.
The UGA freshman will play the run well. He’s physical at the point of attack. Smith is already quite adept at chasing plays down from the backside.
Nolan Smith: His best traits
Smith knows how to rush from a two-point stance, but can also play the run out of that. That’s not the easiest thing to master. The footwork is different.
“We came out here two or three times a week until we got the footwork down,” Logan said. “He’s just that type of kid. I just have a lot of respect for how he goes about his business and how he competes. … He’s going to keep on with that until he wins. He won’t back down and is going to find a way to beat you.”
Logan clearly invested in him on the technical aspects of playing the position. He would school him on working off an inside rush.
If a tackle overset him out on the edge, Smith had the green light provided he could still get to the upfield shoulder of the quarterback to keep him in the pocket. IMG would set up that rush. Its defensive tackles would wrap around to cover its ends and hold contain.
Smith has the skills to stay alive even on a play where the offense pulls its guards. Like on a power play.
“With Nolan, I would say two-gap the guy,” Logan said. “He would be able to fall off either way and make the play. Nolan can do that. He could take the guy on and hold inside leverage but not just give the shoulder up but use his hands, come off the block and make a tackle.”
The SEC is not a jump-jump-king league. It is chess.
Game-deciding moves are usually set up in the first and second quarters. Smith will have to make a living beating future Sunday tackles with one of his alternate moves rather than his top-shelf skills all the time. He knows that.
Every tackle will be studied up on the best elements of Smith’s pass rush toolbox.
“He’s very gifted and busts his tail,” Logan said. “But the work ethic he has is really there. … He would jump in against our best guy the first day he got here and was like ‘let’s go’ and start putting in the work.”
“That’s Nolan’s best trait. He is a lot more talented than I was and I played nine years in the NFL. But that drive he has is his best trait. The best out of everything.”
Smith was rated the most explosive athlete in the 2019 class. He earned that title at the Opening finals last summer.
The former 5-star was measured at 6 feet and 3 inches. Weighed 232 pounds. He timed a laser 4.55 in the 40. His pro shuttle was 4.08 seconds. The vertical jump charted 42.2 inches.
The nation’s No. 1 WR prospect in any year would be giddy over those numbers. Smith will call on that to put quarterbacks on the ground.
That’s said, he seems smart enough to not live off his athleticism. He knows that pass rushers live and die off how they use their hands to slip blocks. He has all those skills and will continue to refine them.
It is worth a reminder here about what Logan said. His athleticism is not what made him the nation’s No. 1 player for his class.
“But that drive he has is his best trait,” Logan said. “Out of everything else.”
The one thing his former coach will miss about Nolan Smith
Smith also made IMG a lot better, too. On and off the field.
“Nolan is normally one of those guys who would remind me every day that what I do is not work,” Wright said. “We are not working. We are out here to have some fun. He’s always checking on me or telling me almost daily how great it is to just be out here practicing.”
“Very upbeat. All the time. Now he will test your nerves a little bit at times. There’s no doubt about that.”
Wright then recalled an interaction from last fall. A player tapped him on the shoulder. The voice behind his ear asked him if he needed some water.
That was Smith.
“He followed that up with a ‘Man, what a great day to come out here and practice’ when he said that,” Wright said. “That’s the kid he is. He has that kind of genuine personality.”
Wright feels Smith can exude that personality to make it in TV or media when his playing days are up.
The Nolan Smith stuff that won’t show on his recruiting page
Smith hits like a defensive end, changes direction and sprints likes a receiver and cares about Georgia as much as any season ticket holder does. Maybe even more so.
His story is a series of paradoxes. This was the 5-star recruit who felt — no matter what the scholarship papers would say — he would not be a Bulldog until he sat down in his first class.
There has always been a clear sense of priority there with Smith. It goes back to the days when DawgNation learned he was the up-and-coming recruit ready to convince everyone to play at Georgia with him.
Yet it was always more intriguing to learn about that annual family tradition (through his hometown church) of feeding the homeless in Savannah on Christmas Day.
He’ll play his first game as a Bulldog this fall at Vanderbilt. Will it be anything like his very first game?
“His first game when he was playing Little League and six-and-under,” his mother Chakeima Thompson said. “His first tackle he hit a kid and the kid hit the cooler and all the water. He jumped up and was waving at me and said ‘Hey Mom’ and his coach was yelling at him and saying ‘get back on the field’ but he was always just a fun-loving kid on the field like that. There are so many stories about Nolan and the field and these games.”
“I love them all.”
He belongs. They all point to that.