ATHENS – Georgia has been preparing for the loss of Roquan Smith. It has talented players who will now step into the All-American’s role to try to help the defense not take a step back.
But there’s only so much anyone can do.
Smith’s impact on the Georgia defense can’t be measured by stats, awards and where he will be picked in the 2018 NFL Draft. The impact of his departure can only be felt by imagining the plays that wouldn’t have been made if not for Smith.
The star inside linebacker routinely made tackles that otherwise would have seen the opposing team get big yardage. His speed, instincts and sideline-to-sideline ability is a reason he is expected to be a first-round pick.
So what does Georgia do? The 2018 Bulldogs will be without all four starting linebackers from the postseason, three and perhaps four members of the secondary and two key defensive linemen.
But talent remains, even at the position that Smith manned the past two years for UGA.
Much depends on the status of Natrez Patrick, a junior who has battled off-field problems, and who missed the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game while receiving drug treatment. Patrick is a starting inside linebacker, if eligible, but that’s not clear right now.
Reggie Carter, who started in Patrick’s place in the postseason, was a fifth-year senior who is also off to the NFL.
There are several candidates to fill the two inside linebacker spots:
- Monty Rice started one game as a freshman – against Missouri, when Patrick and Carter were out – and finished the season with 22 tackles, including 2 for a loss.
- Tae Crowder, the hero of the Rose Bowl for his play on Oklahoma’s squib kickoff, saw action at inside linebacker in the National Championship Game. A tailback when he signed with Georgia in 2015, Crowder moved to defense in 2016, put on weight and has shown potential. He had 7 tackles in 13 games this year.
- Juwan Taylor started one game this year as a junior – at Vanderbilt, also when Patrick and Carter were out – and played well in that game. He finished with 3 tackles at Vanderbilt, including 1 for a loss, and had 13 tackles total this season.
- Nate McBride and Jaden Hunter were freshmen last season who came to Georgia as 4-star recruits. McBride played on special teams and Hunter redshirted.
- Channing Tindall, a 4-star prospect from Columbia, S.C., signed with Georgia during the early signing period.
Those are candidates for Smith’s playing time who will try to come close to his on-field impact: Smith led Georgia in tackles (138) and sacks (6.5).
But the impact of his leadership will be hard to replace.
Safety J.R. Reed and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, who both decided before the National Championship Game to return for another year, will have key locker room roles in 2018. Reed emerged as a surprise starter this season, when he was a redshirt sophomore, and he brings a professional and steady presence as the son and nephew of former NFL players. Ledbetter, after getting through off-field problems as a sophomore, has become a vocal and dependable presence.
Defensive tackle Tyler Clark had a big year as a sophomore and will return, along with fellow defensive lineman David Marshall, among others.
And while outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter also leave voids of talent and leadership, rising senior D’Andre Walker and rising sophomore Walter Grant are good replacements.
The secondary, on the other hand, will need to replace three starters – but got a big lift with the announced return of cornerback Deandre Baker, who gives the secondary an anchor. Baker, a junior this past season, emerged as a lock-down cornerback. Safety J.R. Reed is also set to return, giving the secondary – and the defense – two veteran members in the back.