ATHENS ― One of my favorite things about college football is the cyclical nature of it. Thanks to the constant turnover of talent, teams are always changing and evolving.
I was thinking about that Friday morning because, in trying to come up with a subject to share, my editor asked, “Who do you think will be this year’s Roquan?”
Good question, and it can be taken a few different ways.
Roquan is, of course, Roquan Smith. He was the Bulldogs’ All-SEC, All-America and Butkus Award-winning middle linebacker in 2017. Of course, if you want to watch him play now, you’re going to have to tune into the NFL this fall. Or, better yet, the NFL combine this weekend.
Smith, who was a junior at UGA, will be showing his wares for scouts on Sunday when linebackers take the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. You also can catch outside linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter and defensive linemen John Atkins and Trent Thompson. They’re among a whopping 10 Bulldogs who were invited to the combine.
But there is only one Roquan, as we all saw during the magical season that Georgia had in 2017. Smith, who was listed at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds in the Bulldogs’ media guide, checked in at the combine at 6-foot and ⅞ inches to complement his 236 pounds. He took to heart the criticism that he needed to bulk up some to be able to compete in the league. We’ll see if that extra weight will slow down Smith, who has been consistently timed in the 4.5-second range in the 40-yard dash but believes he can get into the 4.4s.
Regardless of what happens in Indianapolis and in the 2018 NFL Draft in April ― Smith is projected as a first-round selection ― he will go down as one of the best ever to play linebacker for the Bulldogs. When the season finally ended in the National Championship Game, Smith had tallied an SEC-best 137 tackles, an astounding SEC-best 85 solo tackles and a team-best 6.5 quarterback sacks. He also led the Bulldogs in quarterback pressures with 18 and affected the defense in so many positive ways.
Assists in defensive football statistics are credited to a player when he combines with one or more teammates on a tackle, and Smith was credited with 52 of those. But if they were given for turning a perimeter offensive play to the inside where somebody else makes the tackle, Smith likely would lead the nation in that.
Which brings us to my editor’s question: Who could be the 2018 version of Roquan?
That depends on whether one is talking solely about inside linebackers or talking about defensive players who could make a similar overall impact at their respective position. After all, dominant defensive players can come from any place on the field, as we saw last year with Alabama noseguard Da’Ron Payne or Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson, to name two.
Let’s look at it both ways.
Linebacker is going to be a position of mystery for the Bulldogs in 2018. Not only are they having to replace Smith inside, but effectively they’ll be looking for new starters at all four linebacker positions. As for Smith’s position, which technically is the Will, or weakside linebacker position, Juwan Taylor was listed as the backup during Georgia’s College Football Playoff run last season. But the 6-foot-1, 214-pound senior from Hollywood, Fla., did not record a tackle in any of the Bulldogs’ postseason games, the SEC Championship Game included. He finished the season with only 13 tackles, not surprising considering the lack of playing time available behind Smith.
Throughout the season, Georgia employed basically a three-man rotation at the two inside spots: Smith, Reggie Carter and Natrez Patrick. Once Patrick was sidelined for disciplinary reasons after the SEC Championship Game ― and earlier in the season ― Carter got most of the reps at the Mike position. Patrick’s status for 2018 remains murky, and at 6-3, 234, he tends to play more at Mike when he’s in there.
As for up-and-comers, Georgia has Monty Rice and Tae Crowder waiting in the wings. Rice (6-1, 235) tended to get reps at Mike, where he started one game last season. Crowder (6-3, 228) also seems better suited for Mike but, as a converted running back, might have the speed to handle the multi-faceted role of the Will.
Two returning lettermen who seem to have physical traits similar Smith are sophomores Jaden Hunter (6-2, 213) and Nate McBride (6-2, 223). Both were recruited to Georgia for their exceptional speed, and McBride, a Class AA sprint champion, actually played in all 15 games and flourished on special teams with 7 tackles. Keep an eye on him.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs signed two inside linebackers in Channing Tindall of Columbia, S.C., and Quay Walker of Cordele, Ga. Both arrive highly rated but, as evidenced by Smith’s own development, it generally takes a while to flourish at the complicated weakside linebacker position.
It seems unlikely that Georgia will produce a star of Smith’s quality at inside linebacker in 2018. Some of the aforementioned candidates could get there eventually. And the Bulldogs also could have some breakout stars elsewhere on the defense.
Defensive tackle Tyler Clark and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter were dominant at times last season. Coaches rave about the potential of sophomore outside linebacker Walter Grant Jr., who has been compared to former Georgia star Leonard Floyd and wears the same number (84). And fellow outside linebacker D’Andre Walker was second on the team with 5.5 sacks, despite playing a backup role. It will be interesting to see where he could go as a full-time starter.
Looking at it from more of a long-range view, Georgia has recruited a lot of potential all-stars to the defense, in particular in the most recent class. Outside linebackers Adam Anderson and Brenton Cox, both 5-star prospects, are obvious candidates to lead the defense one day, as is 5-star cornerback Tyson Campbell of Plantation, Fla.
But there’s one of the new players who seems to me that he could really be something special some day. That’s defensive back Otis Reese (6-3, 205), who appears to have the size and athletic ability to play seven of the 11 positions on the field and his highlight reel reminds me of former Georgia safeties such as Thomas Davis and Greg Blue. I’m going to circle him as a potential star of the future.
All that’s down the road, though. As for the here and now of 2018, I’m not sure if there’s an impact player on the level of Smith. Not at the moment at least. What say you?