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AJ Reynolds/Special
Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (No. 3) reacts to a defensive stop during an NCAA college football game between Georgia and Appalachian State on Sept. 2, 2017, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won, 31-10.

Roquan Smith named finalist for Bednarik, Butkus awards

Cy Brown

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Roquan Smith is a finalist for 3 awards

It isn’t rare to see Georgia players listed on award watch lists — those are a dime a dozen. It isn’t even uncommon to see some named semifinalists for individual honors. But being a finalist for a major postseason award only happens to truly special player, and Georgia has one who is a finalist for three big-time awards and counting.

On Monday, junior inside linebacker Roquan Smith was named a finalist for the Bednarik Award, given to the best defender in college football, and the Butkus Award, presented to the best linebacker in college football. Smith also is a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award, another award given to the top defender in the country.

Smith seemed like Georgia fans’ little secret as a sophomore. He already was showing the skills that make him one of the best defenders in college football but didn’t receive the notoriety outside of Georgia and SEC circles. But between Georgia’s success and his brilliant defending, Smith has been too good for the rest of the nation to ignore this season. He’s on pace to lead Georgia in tackles for the second straight season with 91 total tackles through 11 games (8.3 tackles/game). He also has delivered 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble.

The other finalists for the Bednarik Award are defensive end Bradley Chubb (N.C. State) and defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (Alabama). The other Butkus Award finalists are Devin Bush (Michigan), Tremaine Edmunds (Virginia Tech), T.J. Edwards (Wisconsin) and Dorian O’Daniel (Clemson).

As a finalist for these awards, Smith has put himself in the company of Georgia legends and forged a reputation as a Georgia legend in his own right. David Pollack was twice a finalist for the Bednarik Award, winning it in 2004. Champ Bailey won the Nagurski Award in 1998. No Georgia player has won the Butkus Award.

Several other Bulldogs have also found themselves in consideration for individual honors this season. Coach Kirby Smart is a semifinalist for the George Munger Coach of the Year Award. Rodrigo Blankenship is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the country’s best kicker. Nick Chubb is a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award, given to the best offensive player. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is a semifinalist for the Broyles Award, for the nation’s best assistant coach.

Stopping the triple-option

The annual showdown with Georgia Tech always presents a set of its own challenges, specifically defending the rarely seen triple-option attack. And after losing to Georgai Tech last season, and getting gashed by the option in the fourth quarter, Smart and his coaches have made a concerted effort to be more prepared to face the Yellow Jackets. According to Chip Towers of DawgNation, Smart has designated time in Monday practices all season to defending the triple option and also spent time working on it during the bye week.

“I felt like you have to familiarize yourself [with it],” Smart said. “Really the players, if nothing more than your scout team, can only be so efficient doing something they don’t do all the time. But they can be as efficient as possible. So, those Mondays have been really critical for them. Those Mondays have been critical for our young players who haven’t been exposed to it. We have worked really hard on that. And then we spent some time in the off week.”

And what’s the solution to stopping Tech from gashing Georgia two years in a row?

“Eye discipline,” Smart said Monday. “It’s what got us last year. You don’t have good eye discipline, you don’t have good eye transfer, they can get you. And they watch every play. They know when you mess up. It doesn’t take them long to figure out, ‘Whoops, he’s not looking at the right thing,’ and then they expose you. And you say, ‘Well, the alternative is don’t be so aggressive with them,’ but you have to stop the run. They do a good job with what they do.”

Unfinished business

Don’t discount revenge as a motivational factor as the Bulldogs try to get back at the Yellow Jackets for the 28-27 loss last season between the hedges. Don’t discount legacy either. If Georgia loses, the senior class would have a losing record against Georgia Tech, something that hasn’t happened since 2001. From Towers:

“That was one of the things I thought about personally, something I needed to come back and finish,” senior Lorenzo Carter said. “I had unfinished business. I didn’t want to leave having a losing record to Tech. Right now, I do. All the seniors do. So, we wanted to come back, play our ball and finish strong.”

Said fifth-year senior John Atkins: “That’s what a lot of guys came back for, losing to Tech last year. You don’t want to lose to Tech in your last year. I mean, we’re not thinking about the SEC yet. Tech’s the next game. We’ve just got to go out against them and play ball.”

Catch-22

One concern about Georgia’s offense this season has been a lack of balance. The Bulldogs have 507 rushing attempts to 205 passing attempts so far. According to Seth Emerson of DawgNation, Smart recognizes the imbalance in the offense but chooses it over the other option: keeping the ball out of the hands of his stars.

“To be able to win a championship you’ve got to have balance. We continue to improve on our balance,” Smart said. “Our ability to throw down the field, our ability to open things up. But if we open things up and throw the ball downfield, I would beg the question what we’re doing with [No.] 27 and [No.] 1 the rest of the time.”

That would be Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, respectively now the second and fifth all-time rushers in Georgia football history.

“It’s Catch-22 to be balanced,” Smart said. “But at the end of the day, to win you’ve got to be able to do both, and when you play really good teams you’ve got to be able to do both.”

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