ATHENS — There shouldn’t be playing time available for Roquan Smith, at least at inside linebacker, judging by the depth chart. It’s even debatable whether he should be there. He could be better at safety, judging by his body.
And yet this much seems clear midway through Georgia’s preseason: Smith is making room for himself at inside linebacker. He may not start, but the freshman is too good not to play.
“He’s probably ahead of schedule,” Mike Ekeler, Georgia’s inside linebackers coach, said early last week.
Ekeler has been showing Smith film of LaVonte David, who Ekeler coached at Nebraska. David is now entering his fourth year with the Tampa Bay Buccanneers, who just gave him a five-year, $50.25 million contract extension.
David, who was a first-team All-American for Ekeler at Nebraska, is 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds. Smith is 6-foot-1 and 225.
“I’ve been watching a lot of him,” Smith said. “(Ekeler) just said I remind him of him.”
That’s why Smith, whose only two weeks into his practice time at Georgia, is making it hard to keep him off the field. Where it gets harder is deciding whose playing time he will cut into.
Even after the departures of Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera – each of whom have made noise thus far at their respective NFL training camps – Ekeler feels his group is better overall than last year. He said last week that there are “six or seven” good enough to play this year, not counting Leonard Floyd – the outside linebacker now working inside in the team’s 3-4 base.
Junior Tim Kimbrough, who was starting beside Floyd, suffered a sprained MCL last week but is due to be ready for the start of the season. Junior Reggie Carter and senior Jake Ganus are also primed for playing time, and Natrez Patrick, the freshman early enrollee, had an impressive spring.
Then there’s Smith, whose smallish frame might have caused some teams to consider him at safety. But Georgia’s defensive staff, led by coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, is aiming for speed in the back seven, so Smith – who has put on seven pounds since enrolling – figures he’s staying at his current spot.
“There aren’t too many safeties playing at that high a weight,” Smith said.
Smith was known at Macon County High School as someone who could just go after the ball, and use his athleticism to overcome any late reactions. Now he’ll be asked to read and adjust quicker, something he’s comfortable doing. Actually, he’s comfortable doing anything.
“I think I’m a good cover linebacker. Also I can go downhill too,” Smith said. “I can do it all. I just think covering is one of my main assets.”
“He’s fast, instinctive, he’ll put his face on you,” Ekeler said. “Usually it takes time when guys come in to understand how to take on blocks and get on blocks. And both he and Juwan (Taylor, another freshman inside linebacker) have really done a great job. And I think it comes from watching the older guys. The older guys come in there and you’ll see some rated R stuff. They (the freshmen) want to be a part of that.”
Earlier this year Smith was more famous for what happened off the field: He committed to UCLA at a signing day ceremony, then re-considered upon the Bruins’ defensive coordinator leaving, and ultimately decided to commit to Georgia but never sign a letter-of-intent. It made him a bit of a cause celebre’ in college football.
That all seems long ago, now that he’s on campus preparing to suit up.
“I’m just glad to be here,” Smith said. “I try not to think about the past. So I’m just happy that I’m here now, that I came here.”