ATHENS — There is a lot about the bowl season and the College Football Playoffs that is unpredictable. Roquan Smith’s answer to the NFL draft question was not one of them.
“Yeah, I’m definitely moreso focused on Oklahoma and whatever it takes to beat those guys,” Georgia’s star inside linebacker said Monday during Georgia’s Rose Bowl media day. “(The NFL draft is) not really my focus. I’m just more focused on Oklahoma.”
Unquestionably, Smith wants to focus intently on stopping the Sooners and their high-flying offense led by quarterback Baker Mayfield. But whether not to turn pro and how to handle it if and when he does is a real and inescapable quandary that Smith has been dealing with to date and will be dealing with to varying degrees going forward.
As is well known now, Smith is a junior and is therefore considered an NCAA underclassman. But he’s also college football’s top linebacker, which is what it says to be the reigning Butkus Award winner, and his status at the next level is being intensely discussed right now both within NFL scouting circles and among potential representatives of Smith’s financial and professional interests.
It’s something most major football programs have to deal with every year, but it’s compounded when you factor in Smith’s lofty status and the stakes for which the Bulldogs are playing at the moment. No. 3 Georgia (12-1) will take on No. 2 Oklahoma (12-1) in the national semifinals Jan. 1 in Pasadena. The winner will advance to the national championship game, which will be played in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
The NFL’s date by which underclassmen much declare is Jan. 15, or exactly one week after that. So Smith has had to some multitasking to do already, and will have some more to do besides.
It’s something that four of Smith’s current teammates had to deal with just a year ago. Of course, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Davin Bellamy all opted to return to UGA for their senior seasons. That, as coach Kirby Smart reiterated on Monday, is a big reason the Bulldogs are in the position they are. But those guys also weren’t commanding the level attention from the NFL that Smith is.
Asked whether he thought Smith can expect some exceptional opportunities, Carter couldn’t contain his laugh.
“Definitely,” he said. “We try not to talk about that stuff too much because we’re in the middle of preparation for the Rose Bowl. We have a chance to compete for the national championship and that’s just a distraction that we don’t need.”
Technically, NFL front-office personal and scouts are not supposed to talk publicly about the pro prospects of college underclassmen. But Smith’s status is a major discussion point among that set, and there are enough well-connected draft specialists in the media these days to know that Georgia fans are likely seeing Smith in that wildly popular No. 3 UGA jersey for the last time over the next few weeks.
Smith has continually moved up in mock all season. On Mel Kiper’s “Big Board,” the most publicized of all those predictors, he has gone from late first round earlier this fall to No. 8 this week. Chris Trappasso of CBS Sports had Smith at No. 18 two weeks ago.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but a first-round expectation is considered a no-brainer for an underclassman because of the financial windfall versus injury risk. When the NFL’s own advisory board offers an evaluation for underclassmen, they offer only two assessments: 1st/2nd round or return to school.
It’s a process with which Georgia’s Smart is very familiar, having balanced preparation for high-stakes bowl games with life-changing draft prospects for years at Alabama.
“We’ve handled it the same way we’ve always handled it,” Smart said Monday. “We call every kid in that we think has that potential. We talk to them about it. We say this is the process we’re going to follow. We’re going to get information, and gather information for you. We’re going to receive it from the NFL, and we’re going to give it to you. We’re going to be able to give you advice.
“But that’s not right now. Right now the focus is on Oklahoma, and that’s the concentration and that’s what we’re doing.”
That part Smart and his staff can control. It’s the area that they can’t control that can be the real distraction.
Garrison Hearst found himself in a similar situation back in 1992. While the Bulldogs weren’t in the hunt for a championship that year, Hearst was a nationally-recognized player and a high-profile NFL prospect. As one the nation’s leading rushers, the Bulldogs’ star tailback went to New York where he finished third for the Heisman Trophy and won the Doak Walker Award as the country’s best back.
“I don’t know what it’s like now but it was definitely crazy back then,” said Hearst, in Athens Monday doing some network television interviews for the Rose Bowl. “Really it was worse during the season. I had to get Robert Miles to change my number in my dorm room because agents were calling all day and all night.”
Smith insists he hasn’t had to deal with anything quite as unmanageable so far. And having a chance to play for a national championship has a way of helping reduce outside distractions.
Not only do the Bulldogs get to play Oklahoma for a chance to advance to the national championship, but they get to do it in the “Grandaddy of Them All,” the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“It’s no regular bowl game,” Smith said. “It’s the college football playoffs. So, it’s the top four teams in the nation and you’re aiming to play for the natty. So that’s the main focus, playing them guys.”
One of the main focuses of the Rose Bowl and the publicity leading up to it is the matchup of Georgia’s Smith against Oklahoma’s Mayfield. The Sooners’ quarterback, of course, won the Heisman Trophy. Smith actually got three votes for it.
“That’s pretty amazing,” Smith said of getting the write-in votes. “Defensive guys don’t really get any love on that, so that’s pretty amazing.”
As for Mayfield, Smith got to meet him at the College Football Awards show in Atlanta.
“He’s a first-class guy off the field, has a great personality as well,” Smith said. “But on the field, it speaks for itself what he does. He just won the Heisman, so it’s definitely big going up against college football’s best player. You know, if you win the Heisman Trophy that’s what they say, so it’s definitely exciting. We’re looking forward to the opportunity and we know it will be a great challenge for our defense.”
A predictable statement about one great player from another.