ATHENS – If you’ve been watching Georgia play pretty regularly this season, you’ve probably noticed No. 3 running around and making a lot of plays for the Bulldogs on defense. That’s sophomore linebacker Roquan Smith, and if you’re wondering how his doing, his coaches and teammates will tell you.
“Ah, man, sideline-to-sideline guy. Real fast, real smart,” fellow linebacker Reggie Carter said. “He’s your modern-day linebacker for sure. He’s incredible to be around, he’s a good guy. He’s a good player and athlete. I love that kid.”
Said head coach Kirby Smart: “He plays really hard. He’s really fast, extremely athletic. When you say the new-age linebacker of speed and athleticism, play the spread, he’s cut right out of that cloth. He can run, man. He can close. He’s getting more and more instinctive.”
That he is. Heading into the Bulldogs’ 11th game of the season, the 6-foot-1, 225-pound sophomore leads the team with 62 tackles. The last time Georgia had a sophomore lead it in tackling for the season was Rennie Curran with 115 in 2008.
Odds are pretty good that a sophomore will lead again because the Bulldogs’ second-leading tackler, Natrez Patrick with 55, is also a sophomore. But one of the reasons Smith’s ascension is so important at this point is Patrick is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered in the Kentucky game. Patrick sat out last Saturday’s game against Auburn and his availability for this weekend’s game against Louisiana-LaFayette is questionable.
But, thanks in part to Smith’s presence, the Bulldogs didn’t miss a beat against Auburn this past Saturday. He led Georgia with seven tackles as they stoned the Tigers to the tune of only 32 yards and no first downs in the second half of a 13-7 Bulldogs’ victory.
Smith, Patrick and Carter have formed a triumvirate of a three-man rotation at inside linebacker all season. With Patrick sidelined, the Bulldogs have included Johnny O’Neal and Juwan Taylor in that rotation.
But it’s Smith, a former 4-star prospect out of Macon County, who is emerging as the star of the group.
“Yeah, he’s fast, but he’s real smart, too,” said Carter, who has started six games and has 35 tackles. “He can pick up on things on the fly. That’s what separates him a lot. He’s a real smart guy.”
Said Smart: “If he could work on anything it would be his block protection and his strike because he’s not huge. He’s got good size; he’s just not huge. But he’s really fast and really instinctive and he cares about the game. The guy practices so hard. You worry about him giving out in practice because he practices so hard. But he gets return on that investment because he plays well in games. I’m proud of Roquan. He’s done a good job for us.”
Smith himself points to hard work as the reason for his emergence this season. He has always been identified as an athlete with a special gift for speed. He was a decorated sprinter at Macon County High School. What nobody could be sure of when he left his hometown of Montezuma was how much he would apply himself.
But all his coaches and teammates describe him as a studious player who pours over film and has uncanny recognition and recall on the field.
“As the year has gone on, I’ve learned the system more,” Smith said. “I’ve gotten a better understanding of the system. So once you know what you’re doing, it helps you to play faster. I just feel like knowing what to do I can go out and not worry about what I’m supposed to be doing and just play fast.”
Smith has done that a few times. Despite playing in a liberal rotation, he had nine tackles against Florida, seven versus Kentucky and 11 earlier this season at South Carolina.
Both Carter and Smart emphasized Smith’s work ethic and intelligence. Smith credits his coach at Macon County High, Larry Harrell, for instilling a belief in him and encouraging him to stick with football when he was considering playing basketball full time. He also credits a family friend named Roy Yoder for nurturing his work ethic. As detailed in a Next Generation profile two summers ago, Yoder put Smith to work digging wells and doing electrical, plumbing and welding work during the hot Macon County summers.
“Ever since I started the game, I’m not going to take the game for granted because at any time it can be taken away,” he said. “So I just value the time I’m able to play. I give it my all when I can.”
Smith’s all has been been pretty awesome.