ATLANTA – Maybe it’s only appropriate. Nearly three years ago, Roquan Smith committed to play his home games at the Rose Bowl, even though he had never stepped foot in the stadium.
He didn’t think about it much after he changed his mind from UCLA to Georgia and went on to become one of the best players in the country. But in so doing he helped his team qualify for a national semifinal against Oklahoma, and he’ll finally play on the Bruins’ home turf.
“I’ve heard from numerous sources that it’s got the best grass, the best weather, everything like that,” Smith said. “So that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
That sounded like a small-town kid from central Georgia, rather than one who has actually visited the L.A. area – though not the Rose Bowl. He spent Wednesday night rubbing elbows with other big names in college football at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta, where he and other stars were attending the College Football Awards show.
That included Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy favorite who will have to deal with Smith on Jan. 1.
“Unbelievable player,” Mayfield said of Smith. “A guy who’s always around the ball. His stats show that, but then you watch the film and you really see just how much of an impact he makes on the field. Teams have tried to game plan to make sure he’s not a factor. But he always makes sure that he is a factor in the game.”
Smith, speaking a few moments before he would meet Mayfield in person for the first time, returned the compliment with his characteristic understated style.
“I actually watched some [game film] of them today. Pretty good player,” Smith said. “I only watched a little bit though. I watched the TCU game. But I think he’s an awesome player, with a good team.”
Smith was also asked about facing Oklahoma’s offense, which is the best in the nation in total yards. Georgia’s defense is also top 5 nationally.
“We’re looking forward to it. We’re not going to back down from anyone,” Smith said. “We feel like we’re Georgia, we’ve got a great defense, they have a great offense. So you know it’ll be a tale of the tapes. So really looking forward to it and it’ll be a great challenge for our defense.”
Smith is a finalist for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the nation’s top defensive player. He also was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which went on Monday to N.C. State linebacker Bradley Chubb.
And on Sunday night, at the Georgia football team’s awards gala, Smith was surprised when he received the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker.
“As a kid you say, ‘Oh man, Dick Butkus.’ You dream of getting an award like that,” Smith said. “And actually being presented that, in front of my family and teammates. It was just a pretty special moment.”
But awards are second in priority to other things.
Smith was late arriving in Atlanta on Wednesday night, partly because of traffic on the way from Athens, partly because Smith left late.
“I had to work out,” Smith said, laughing. “Gotta get a workout in and what not. I had more stuff to take care of.”
When he did arrive, he told a roomful of reporters about what a “pretty awesome” feeling it was to be in consideration for all these awards. He spoke of the Rose Bowl stadium and of seeing it on television in national championships or UCLA-USC games.
And, with his NFL stock continuing to rise, the junior was asked if he had thought much about the next level.
“I haven’t thought much about it,” Smith said. “I’m just more so enjoying this ride with my teammates.”