ATHENS — Outside linebacker Nolan Smith was the No. 1 overall high school recruit in the country. Because of that, he entered the Georgia program with high expectations.
And so far, he seems to be living up to that hype. He drew rave reviews this spring from Kirby Smart and when Dan Lanning spoke with reporters on Monday, Smith’s name was brought up again.
But it may not be for the reason might think. Given Smith’s position — outside linebacker — a lot of people expect him to impress early on as a pass rusher. Georgia ranked next to last in the SEC a season ago in sacks and the team has spoken at length about creating more “havoc” plays this fall.
But so far, Smith has actually impressed with how he’s worked in the run game as well as his overall effort level.
“We got a ton of competition in that room,” Lanning said. “Nolan Smith we’re calling him ‘Hammerhead’ now with the way he likes collision runs.”
Smith isn’t the only highly touted recruit in the outside linebacker room, and that is still the case after Brenton Cox put his name in the transfer portal. There are the likes of Adam Anderson, Azeez Ojulari, Robert Beal and Jermaine Johnson, who were all also blue-chip recruits.
But Lanning, who doubles as Smith’s position coach in addition to serving as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, has made it clear that Smith didn’t come in with an over-inflated ego.
“One thing coming in with guys, you want to make sure it’s not just about stars,” Lanning said. Coming to college is a very humbling experience for any person and Nolan really handled that the right way.
“He’s really eager to learn and he’s extremely bright and smart. He’s one of those people, he signed his signing day papers and the next day after he signed he’s asking, ‘Where’s my playbook at?'”
Smith’s work ethic has helped standout so far, as he was able to play his way onto the first-team defense for Georgia’s G-Day game. that came at the expense of some of the returning players in the room.
When speaking with WSB over the summer, offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson — a 5-star prospect who redshirted his first year in Athens — admitted that Smith has been able to stand out early on, but not necessarily because he’s relying purely on his raw athleticism.
“It’s like he’s fresh out of high school, 18 or 19, and he’s strong enough to push people around, and earhole people,” Wilson said.
Of course, Smith wasn’t the only outside linebacker that Lanning took time to praise, as he also highlighted some of those returning players who will be competing with Smith for playing time.
“There are some guys who have had a really good camp so far,” Lanning said. “Walter Grant is someone who moved around a lot this spring and has done some really good stuff with us more fulltime this fall. Azeez Ojulari is someone who finished off last year really strong and is doing really well.
“But I don’t think you can put aside the work that Robert Beal has put in, the work Adam Anderson has done. It’s hard to just say this guy and that guy and obviously we have some newcomers we’re excited about.”
When Smart met with the media this past week, he acknowledged that there is a lot of hype surrounding the outside linebacker room. But he also needs to see a serious uptick in production if Georgia is going to be the best version of itself in 2019.
For that to happen, Smith is going to have to make an impact. Most would probably like to see him rack up a number of sacks and emerge as a real pass-rushing threat. But there’s more to playing outside linebacker than just sacking the quarterback.
Smith has already impressed in some of those areas to begin his Georgia career. The aspect that Smart and Lanning have both consistently raved about so far is also the one that should excite Georgia fans most about Smith’s long-term potential.
“He’s great for our room,” Lanning said. “He motivates our guys and plays really hard. You can overcome a lot of young mistakes when you play hard and that’s what’s exciting probably about Nolan.”
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