How Nakobe Dean’s intelligence is helping fuel those Roquan Smith comparisons

Nakobe Dean-Georgia football-smart
Georgia linebacker Nakobe Dean (Connor Riley/DawgNation)

ATHENS — Stanford was a serious option for inside linebacker Nakobe Dean. Given his 5-star status, talent was never going to be an issue with Dean playing at the Power Five level. But from an academic standpoint, Dean had the grades to get into one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the country.

And according to DawgNation’s Jeff Sentell, Dean seriously considered Stanford during his recruitment process. But the reason the Cardinal fell off was that Dean wouldn’t be able to enroll early at Stanford and get a jump start on honing his football career.

That’s part of the reason Dean ended up picking Georgia. Because he was going to have the opportunity to come in and show off his football intelligence to partner with his academic excellence.

“When you go to Horn Lake, Mississippi, there’s not a person that’s going to say a bad thing about Nakobe Dean,” Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “Obviously, he’s over a 4.0 student. We knew he was a good student; we knew he was a high-character guy before he ever got here and I think that’s just carried over to this time of year.”

Dean committed to Georgia in December and then enrolled in January. Almost immediately, he left an impression on his teammates and coaches on what type of person and player Georgia had.

“I think the very first week he was here, his academic advisor the next day said, ‘I was getting an email from Nakobe after midnight, asking about where’s this assignment at,’” Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said.  “When you come here you have to perform not only on the field but in the classroom and that’s what we ask our guys to do.”

So far, his on and off the field intelligence has really helped him shine in his brief time at Georgia. He worked his way on to the first-team defense in Georgia’s spring game and racked up 5 tackles, the most by any linebacker.

Related: Georgia G-Day Game: Nakobe Dean active inside, Nolan Smith bottled up outside

That strong play has continued into the fall. When fellow teammates are asked about Dean, they’ll usually bring up an example of how smart he is on the field or how studious he is away from it.

“Nakobe is extremely smart and knows the game very well,” offensive lineman Ben Cleveland said. “It’s only going to help him, the more he learns. His football intelligence is really going to help him progress.”

“He’s a very good player. He’s very, very fast and smart,” offensive lineman Solomon Kindley said. “Every time I see Nakobe, he has his notebook with him. He’s always trying to study and predict that next play.”

Despite all the freshman hype, it’s far from guaranteed that Dean will start when the Bulldogs visit Vanderbilt on Aug. 31, given that Monty Rice, Tae Crowder, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker all return from a season ago.

It’s also worth mentioning Dean isn’t a physical specimen. His 6-foot, 220-pound frame doesn’t exactly pop when you see him on the practice field. He is the shortest of Georgia’s scholarship inside linebackers.

But Dean makes up for the perceived lack of measurables in other ways. That’s where his studious nature really helps out.

“He’s been a great fit,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I’ve never had a kid come in and just naturally understand football as well as he has. He’s probably not as fast as most people think but he is that much more instinctive. He makes a lot of plays.”

There is a recent Georgia linebacker that Dean does somewhat physically compare to: Roquan Smith. As a junior, Smith was listed at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds. That season, Smith finished with 137 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He was the best player on a team that was a handful of plays from winning the national championship and ultimately the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Related: Another Roquan? The reel Nakobe Dean breakdown by the two men highly qualified to do so

Back in the spring, defensive lineman David Marshall actually went as far to compare Dean to Smith. That’s not exactly fair to Dean, given how transcendent Smith was a junior in 2017. As a freshman, Smith largely was limited to special teams and finished with just 20 tackles.

But even Smart has leaned into the Smith comparisons. At SEC Media Days Smart said Dean models his game after Smith’s. Coaches and players weren’t taking about Smith in 2015 like some are speaking about Dean to start his Georgia career.

“It’s like he’s been out there for a year already,” Rice said.  “He’s a complete dude. He’s freaky strong in the weight room. On the field, he’s real smart. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Rice —who would’ve led Georgia in tackles a year ago had he not injured his foot prior to the game against UMass — was a freshman on the 2017 team with Smith.

In 2018, Georgia used a rotation of linebackers to mix an and match depending on the opponent. That’s in large part because it didn’t have a player like Smith could play every snap. Because it didn’t have a talent like Smith to rely on, the group as a whole was worse.

Dean has yet to play a single college snap, so to expect him to be anything close to Smith is wildly unfair. But due to his intelligence and work ethic on and off the field, he’s given the Georgia football program a reason to be excited about its linebacker play once again.

“I’m very excited to see what he has in store for this team,” safety Richard LeCounte said.

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