ATHENS – He stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 225 pounds. He says, right now, in the middle of the football season, he’d probably run a 40-yard dash in about 4.5 seconds. But, he said, “with a little training, I’m probably a 4.4 guy,” and he has clocked it before.
No, we’re not talking about an SEC tailback here. But anybody who has seen Roquan Daevon Smith run knows he would probably make a pretty good one. In fact, that’s where he started out playing in high school.
“I realized early I didn’t like taking the blows; I liked delivering them,” Smith said during the Bulldogs’ preparations for Auburn this week.
Georgia is now benefiting from Smith’s strike-first mindset. More than anything else, it’s Smith’s tailback speed at his middle linebacker position that his put the “Junkyard” back in the Bulldogs’ defense.
“It’s that speed,” senior noseguard John Atkins said when asked what makes Smith the linebacker he is for the Bulldogs. “Roquan always has been a special player because he can run sideline to sideline. I always say, if I have Roquan and Lorenzo [Carter] on the field with me, that means I don’t have to run too far.”
Smith’s speed and skill will be put to the ultimate test on Saturday when the Bulldogs, ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings, face No. 10 Auburn and its high-powered offense at Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS).
There are a lot of exceptional players on Georgia’s team this year, Carter being another one. That goes without saying seeing how the Bulldogs are undefeated through nine games and ranked No. 1 in the country. But at this point, Smith is probably the only player on UGA’s roster who’s assured of being named a first-team All-American.
Or, at least, it’d be an egregious oversight if he’s not.
Smith is as good of an inside linebacker as I’ve had the pleasure of observing in all of my years covering Georgia. The junior from Montezuma is the leading tackler on Georgia’s top-5 defense. That, in and of itself, is not that big of a deal. Linebackers are designed to make tackles, so most of them tend to lead their team in that category.
Indeed, Smith leads the Bulldogs with 70 tackles. That’s a lot – 7.8 per game – but not anywhere close to the most in the SEC. He ranks 11th in the conference. LSU’s Devin White tops the conference with 89, or 9.9 per game.
Smith, however, gives Georgia so much more than that. His ability to anticipate where a play is headed and not lose sight of the football amid all the chaos and misdirection is what sets him apart.
Asked what has allowed Smith to take his play to another level this season, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, “I’d say his understanding of the defense is much better, but his leadership is even greater than that.”
“He has not been afraid to speak when he’s felt strongly about something,” Smart added. “That’s a rare trait in a junior. He’s not worried what other people think about him, and that’s the way leaders have to be, and he’s been that way.”
There’s no telling the number of plays that Smith affects without actually being involved in the tackle. Smith prides himself on being just as fast as any play maker with whom an opponent plans to exploit the defense. Sometimes he’s asked to key on an opposing quarterback, as he did with Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush; sometimes it’s a running back, as he did with Tennessee’s John Kelly. Sometimes he’s just following the ball.
But if the offense’s intent is to get outside of the defensive pursuit, it’s Smith’s intent to make sure it doesn’t. And it rarely does.
“I definitely take pride in that,” Smith said. “I want to make sure early that they know, ‘I’ll be here all night, so be expecting that.’ There’s a sense of pride when you see someone you know is pretty fast, too, and you get them down. I’m a fierce competitor, so I just take great pride in that.”
Everybody on Georgia’s team knew Smith was an exceptional player when he showed up on campus. Smith had been highly recruited. He was a 4-star prospect at Macon County in Montezuma. But so is pretty much everybody who signs with the Bulldogs.
But early on, in some of his first workouts at Georgia, Smith’s teammates could tell they were dealing with an extraordinary athlete.
“We were running stadiums when he first got here and he just took off,” senior linebacker Reggie Carter said. “Everybody’s running and he just shoots out ahead. You could just see the athletic traits that he possessed. During camp his freshman year, he didn’t know the defense as well, but he showed flashes with all the athletic stuff he did. We knew then he was going to be a great player.”
It’s not just his speed that’s getting Smith noticed. He has made a concerted effort to become a student of the game
“I have a lot of God-given ability, a lot of instincts, but I actually watch a lot of film,” Smith said. “Knowing your opponent is half the battle. People say 90 percent of it is mental and 10 is physical. So, throughout the week I’m always watching film.”
Some of that development was a by-product of Smith being sidelined in the spring. He underwent off-season shoulder surgery, which meant he was held out of contact.
“He was out there behind the huddle, taking the steps, had a [practice] script in his hand,” Smart said. “It bothered him that he wasn’t able to practice. He didn’t lay back and just relax and have a good time. He was very businesslike and very professional in his approach when he was not in, and I think that’s helped him have a better junior year.”
Said Smith: “You can see things from a coach’s perspective, and that was big, I think, for my learning curve. I feel like I learned a lot during that time.”
It’s definitely showing now. As the Bulldogs have shot up the national rankings both on defense and as a team, there has been a lot more exposure for everyone involved. And whenever people are talking about what makes Georgia great, they start with that nationally rated defense and that linebacker that wears No. 3 in the middle of it.
And Smith is getting his just due. He was named a midseason first-team All-American by The Associated Press and several other such polls.
The Bulldogs will depend on Smith a lot Saturday against Auburn’s high-scoring offense. The Tigers feature the SEC’s leading rusher in running back Kerryon Johnson (124 ypg) and the league leader in completion percentage in quarterback Jarrett Stidham (66.8 percent).
But as much as Smith has been preparing for those Auburn players, you can be sure they’re preparing for No. 3 in the middle of the Georgia defense as well.
Smith’s jacked for the challenge.
“They do a lot of things on offense, have a lot of eye candy and window dressing,” Smith said. “They do a lot of rockets and things like that. You have to have eye discipline and read what you have to read and not be looking all over the field. … It’s more so, find the ball and hit the person with the ball. That’s simple enough.”
That has certainly worked for Smith so far. He tries to keep it simple and overwhelm them with speed.