Georgia football-Nolan Smith-2022 season
Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith (4) Georgia vs,. Michigan in the Capital One Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla., on Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Tony Walsh

What Georgia football really needs from Nolan Smith in 2022 season

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What Georgia football needs from Nolan Smith in 2022 season

The end of Nolan Smith’s 2021 season was fitting. On the final play of the National Championship, Smith took down Alabama quarterback Bryce Young for a sack. As he made his way to the Georgia sideline to celebrate, he put his head on hands as if to resemble he put the game to bed.

It was a rather forceful statement from Georgia’s loudest player. Smith was the vocal leader of last year’s defense, much like he was the leader of Georgia’s 2019 recruiting class that brought in Nakobe Dean, Travon Walker, George Pickens and others.

Smith is now a champion, something he set out to do long before ever putting on a Georgia jersey.

Yet instead of heading off to the NFL for his next great adventure, Smith elected to come back. Part of it was to graduate, per his mother’s request. But the 2022 season gives Smith a chance to add to his legacy.

“Hopefully I get to come back and show my kids, I graduated from here,” Smith said. “I built a lot of things here in my little pond and created a ripple effect.”

For the sake of the 2022 team, Georgia is hoping Smith leaves no doubt about his legacy at the University of Georgia.

As a junior, Smith had just 3.5 sacks. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that Georgia asks Smith to do a lot of other things. Set the edge so opposing quarterbacks couldn’t scramble. Drop back into coverage to try and confuse opposing quarterbacks. Be more of a complete player, rather than one who just chases sacks.

Georgia’s 2022 defense wasn’t built on having individual stars. Dean and Jordan Davis were honored with postseason awards, but the strength of the defense was that everyone was good. There was no weak link. No one needed to compensate for anyone else.

“That’s why we did that so well last year,” Smith said during the spring. “We had a lot of guys speaking up, that’s not right, that’s wrong.”

That won’t be the case to start the season for this Georgia defense. The Bulldogs lost too much at all three levels to be as dominant as it was a season ago. Georgia might be one of the better defenses in the country by the end of the season, but it won’t be in the opening games against Oregon and South Carolina.

Consider Georgia’s sack production from last season. The Bulldogs finished fourth in the country with 49 sacks. No one had more than Robert Beal’s 6.5, demonstrating that it was a group effort.

Related: Robert Beal makes Georgia football pass rush an underrated strength in 2022

But Dean’s 6.0 sacks are gone, as are Walker’s 6.0. So too are Channing Tindall’s 5.5 and Adam Anderson’s 5.0. In total, Georgia returns only 20.5 of its 49 sack production from a season ago.

As Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Kamari Lassiter and others step into larger roles, Georgia is going to need its pass rush to help cover up for the Georgia defense.

Smith might finally be able to pin his ears back and rack up the kind of sack numbers many want to see from the former No. 1 overall recruit. We’ve seen him become a force in the run game, as he notched 10.0 tackles for loss last season.

Smith showed a season ago that tackling the quarterback is far beyond his only skill. Consider his stretch in the Florida game when he ripped the ball out of Anthony Richardson’s hands for a force fumble and recovery. Then he snarred a tipped Richardson pass to come down with an interception.

Georgia could probably use some of that as well this season on the defensive side of the ball. Georgia’s promising younger players aren’t lacking in athletic ability. But the one skill Smith far outweighs them in is practical football experience.

This will be Smith’s fourth season where he is taking first-team snaps. That’s going to be valuable, whether it comes from understanding the week-to-week grind of an SEC slate or just helping players get lined up.

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