There’s sound reasoning in the old saying that defense wins championships, but let’s take it a step further and say that having a player such as Roquan Smith puts you in the running for more than just a conference title.
It’s not like Georgia was short on talent this season, what with the likes of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Trenton Thompson on the roster. But, Smith wowed just about everyone who saw the Dawgs play, which is why he became the first Bulldog to win the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate linebacker, garnering 60 percent of the first-place votes and 40 percent of the overall weighted vote, which is a greater margin than any linebacker in the past decade.
As the Butkus selection committee put it, Smith is “always around the ball and is very tough, fast and instinctive, with exceptional football reflexes. He makes his presence felt all over the field and hits with the type of explosion that has come to define the Butkus Award.”
Smith also was named first team All-America by Walter Camp, SI.com, Bleacher Report, College Football Madness and The All-American. He was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the AP and the coaches, and was a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award (both of which signify the nation’s top defensive player). He just finished 10th in the voting for the Heisman Trophy (the only defensive contender ranking that high).
At times this year, there has seemed to be more than one Roquan Smith on the field, as he’s ranged from sideline to sideline, racking up 113 stops (8.7 tackles per game) so far. He also has had 10.5 tackles for loss, a team-leading 5.5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries, 2 fumble recoveries and a forced fumble. In the SEC Championship Game win over Auburn, he wreaked havoc on the Tigers as he notched 13 tackles, 10 of them solo; 1 sack; and 2 fumble recoveries, and was named the game MVP.
Barrett Sallee of CBSsports.com thought Smith should have finished even higher in the Heisman voting for the nation’s best football player, placing the UGA junior third on his ballot. Said Sallee: “From a value perspective, Smith is every bit to Georgia what [Heisman winner Baker] Mayfield is to Oklahoma.”
Still, when AJC columnist Mark Bradley wrote this week that Smith is “the best Georgia player I’ve seen since Herschel,” it got Bulldog Nation talking.
“I’m not saying Roquan Smith is Herschel Walker, who remains the greatest college player ever,” Bradley explained, but, having seen every Georgia player in the past 40 years, he believes Smith is second only to Walker, taking the spot he previously would have given to David Pollack.
No arguments about Herschel’s status as the greatest Dawg I ever saw play. (Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi were before my time.) And, I agree that Roquan (who has achieved that elite first-name-only status among grateful Bulldogs fans) is one of UGA football’s all-time best.
But, I’m not sure he would rank No. 2 on my list behind the legendary No. 34. I think that spot might still belong to Champ Bailey, an iron-man two-way All America player who was in for more than 1,000 plays on defense, offense and special teams in the 1998 season, including more than 100 in seven different games, and won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defender.
After Bailey, maybe I’d have Pollack, Georgia’s own version of the Energizer Bunny, who had 36 quarterback sacks. Or maybe Jake Scott, who led the SEC in interceptions and punt returns in his two years playing for the Dawgs.
But, I believe Roquan would crack my top 5. Then would come scrambling QB Fran Tarkenton (the first great UGA player I actually saw play); the versatile Hines Ward, who accumulated 4,788 all-purpose yards running, receiving and passing during his time at Georgia and came in second behind Herschel in a “greatest Bulldog” poll I ran among Blawg readers about a decade ago; Terry Hoage, a two-time consensus All-America defensive back who Vince Dooley said was the best defensive player he’d ever coached; and Bill Stanfill, UGA’s only winner of the Outland Trophy, signifying the nation’s best lineman, and presumably a regular visitor in Steve Spurrier’s nightmares.
And then there are all those other great running backs, including Garrison Hearst, Knowshon Moreno, Todd Gurley, Chubb and Michel; and quarterbacks Eric Zeier, David Greene and Aaron Murray.
As my son Bill reminded me: “When he was healthy, Gurley was amazing, and his pro career is affirming that. Had he not been suspended, he is probably the 2014 Heisman winner. A.J. Green is a similar story, where, when healthy and/or not suspended, he was amazing.”
In discussing Bradley’s column this week, my brother Tim said he didn’t think you can compare players from different positions and eras easily, but “Roquan is about as good a Dawg as you can get. And the best we’ve ever had that played his position. Definitely in the top 5.”
My buddy Joel’s view: “Roquan is definitely there [in the top 5] and I wouldn’t quibble too much with him at No. 2. He’s just a hell of a player and a big reason I think we’ll beat Oklahoma.”
Another friend, Scott, demurred: “I honestly still have Pollack No. 2 on my list. He literally had so many jaw-dropping plays — strip-sack TDs, one-handed interceptions (at defensive end!), beating double-teams on sacks at crucial moments. I love Roquan, and he is definitely this year’s team MVP. But I think he’s basically Jarvis Jones 2.0.
“People forget just how spectacular J.J. was in 2012. He single-handedly took over the Mizzou game in the fourth quarter with the game on the line. Everyone remembers his legendary touchdown-saving play vs. Florida, but people forget what an overall unbelievable game he played that day. Like Roquan, he seemed to be around the ball every play — 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, knocking down passes, etc.”
Another friend, Mike, would take Smith over Jones. “I don’t remember Jarvis making tackles sideline to sideline like Roquan does.”
Overall, Mike would rank Bailey No. 2 and probably Ward No. 3 “because both were so versatile.” However, he said, “Roquan has to be the best linebacker ever, and UGA has had some good ones. But, not one who covers so much of the field and hits like him, too.”
What do you think? Would you rank Roquan Smith among the greatest Dawgs you’ve ever seen?