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Nolan Smith ‘continuing to get better and show promise’ as role in Georgia football defense expands

ATHENS — Perhaps no single play better represented Georgia’s defensive effort against South Carolina than South Carolina’s third and 13 with 13:25 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Tyrqiue Stevenson burst through the South Carolina offensive line and forced quarterback Dakereon Joyner out of the pocket and towards Nolan Smith. The freshman outside linebacker, who nearly chased down Joyner after shedding a would-be blocker on the previous play, broke free from a South Carolina and closed in on the speedy South Carolina quarterback. Smith was able to get his hands on Joyner, and had he been able to get him to the ground, it would’ve forced a fourth and 29.

But Smith couldn’t quite finish the play, as Joyner was somehow able to get the ball out of his hands for an incomplete pass. The Georgia defense and Smith did their job on that play, but they couldn’t quite make an impact play that could’ve helped set up a floundering Georgia offense with better field position.

“It’s kind of frustrating that we can’t finish those plays. But it’s part of the game,” Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari said on some of the near misses. “You try and fix things and just go out and make those plays.”

The fact that Smith was even in a position to make a play like that should be an encouraging sign not just for the freshman but potentially the entire Georgia defense.

Related: The 3 players Georgia football needs to break out in second half of 2019 season

“I think he’s improving rapidly,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. He played the counter well, which one of his pitfalls is going to be playing the run against big people and he did an excellent job of squeezing and bouncing back.

“He continues to get better and show promise and we’re playing him quite a bit.”

On the season, Smith has 1.5 sacks, with those all coming against Murray State. But if you pay attention to him closely, you’ll notice Smith has been getting close to picking up more on a handful of plays. Against Notre Dame, it was Smith who had his hands on quarterback Ian Book as he was forced to put up a prayer on Notre Dame’s final offensive play of the game.

Georgia’s also played quite a few slippery, athletic quarterbacks who can be tough to corral and bring to the ground. Georgia will face a player of a similar skillet to that of Joyner in Kentucky quarterback Lynn Bowden. He’s a converted wide receiver and ran for 196 yards a week ago against Arkansas. Smart compared him to that of former Georgia great Hines Ward.

But Smith has another tool in his utility belt to help him against those athletic quarterbacks. In addition to his obvious physical gifts, Smith has always played with great effort. Even if a quarterback takes off and tries to scramble for yardage, Smith is usually doing his best to chase him down from behind.

And even being a well-built 235 pound outside linebacker, Smith has been able to chase down a few quarterbacks from behind.

“He’s a high-motor guy,” Smart said. “He can play so athletic, so fast and so explosive that I don’t think people account for how twitchy he is up there and really disruptive.”

An example of Smith’s stellar effort came on South Carolina’s final drive of regulation. Joyner broke the pocket and looked to be scrambling for a possible first down. But Smith located Joyner and tracked him down like a dad chasing after a puppy that’s bolted from the house. What could’ve been a first down was limited to only a six-yard gain.  Those additional yards would’ve been huge as South Carolina was trying to set-up a potential game-winning field goal.

While it was a concern coming into the year, Georgia’s outside linebacker play has been solid to this point. Ojulari has become a steady and reliable player for Georgia, especially on rushing downs. And if Smith can continue to progress, and turn those near sacks into actual sacks, he’s not just going to make things easier for Ojulari and the Georgia defense, but the entire Georgia team as well.

Azeez Ojulari discusses Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith

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