Nolan Smith-Georgia football-florida rivalry
Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Nolan Smith (4) celebrates their 55-0 win against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, October 15, 2022, in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Nolan Smith ready to leave one final mark on Georgia football-Florida rivalry: ‘He’s ride or die’

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Nolan Smith ready to leave one final mark on Georgia-Florida rivalry

ATHENS — When speaking to reporters last week, Georgia senior edge rusher Nolan Smith took time to notice how much things had changed. The podium he stood behind was in what used to be in the team meeting room, where Kirby Smart would address past iterations of the Georgia football team.

Thanks to facility upgrades, the room is now relegated to just media appearances. It’s not the only substantial change the Georgia program has seen since Smith arrived as the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 signing class. It enters Saturday’s game against Florida with a 7-0 record. The Bulldogs are the defending national champions and Georgia is the No. 1 ranked team in the country to this point in the season.

Gone are many of the key defensive faces from last season’s team. Yet Smith remains, as important to Georgia’s team success as ever.

“He’s been that way since I met him when he was in eighth grade and he came up here to camp,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s been a natural leader, comes from a great family, but his leadership is more important than his ability and his ability is pretty strong. He creates a toughness about the he holds people to a standard of the way you strike blocks, the way you close on counters, the way you rush with effort, special teams, I mean, he plays on all special teams. He’s just a core guy.”

Related: Nolan Smith on Georgia win over Florida: ‘It was personal’

Smith will take the Georgia team down to Jacksonville in a game that means a good bit to him. All games are important for Smith, but being able to play in Jacksonville, Fla., is a treat for the Savannah, Ga., native.

“It is exciting for me because it is a game that I have watched all my life,” Smith said. I am a kid from Savannah, and I used to go to Jacksonville to go to camps with my mom. I get really excited to play in that game.

“As a kid from Savannah, I smell the weather and it feels so good. The breeze feels like I am at home and playing at home again.”

A season ago, Smith turned in perhaps his finest as a Bulldog performance against Georgia’s biggest rival.

In the span of 39 seconds of game action, Smith came up with two turnovers. The first saw him rip the ball away from quarterback Anthony Richardson, setting up Georgia’s first touchdown drive of the game. He then came down with an interception on the next drive that led to a second Georgia touchdown.

Smith quickly turned a 3-0 game into a 17-0 game. But the greatest impact Smith made that day wasn’t during the 60 minutes of game action.

It came in the postgame press conference when speaking about quarterback Stetson Bennett. The Georgia quarterback hadn’t played his best game, as he was intercepted twice while completing 10 of his 19 pass attempts. Yet Smith forcefully told reporters that Bennett was this team’s quarterback and that Bennett would bounce back.

He did, leading Georgia to a national championship. For all the memorable moments Bennett has been a part of, he hasn’t forgotten what Smith said or how much that meant to the oft-criticized quarterback.

“For him to come out and just say, hey, I’m… whatever,” Bennett said this week. “It puts that to bed and makes me love the guy. Like all right, that’s my teammate, he’s there, he’s for me, he’s ride or die, that’s my guy. He is our vocal leader. He says stuff, people listen.”

Smith has a natural confidence when he speaks. He’s comfortable talking, whether that be in front of a microphone or to teammates during practice. More often than not, there’s trash talk involved, but more the motivating kind than the insulting.

It’s not dissimilar from his head coach, something fellow players see. Smith is one of the few players who consistently matches Smart’s energy on the practice field. He gets the people going.

When Smith needs to be serious, he can deliver a sermon. If the team needs a laugh, he’ll turn into John Mulaney. Smith, like Smart, often knows the pulse of the team.

Smith may not end up coaching at the University of Georgia, but teammates see a lot of similarities between the defensive leader and Smart.

“He’s a guy that is just like coach Smart for us. Very passionate and brings a lot of energy to the game,” senior safety Christopher Smith said. “He had a great game last year and he’s going to do everything it takes this week to be able to have another good game.”

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