ATHENS – I tried to get in touch with Jeff Ulbrich on Monday. You football connoisseurs out there might know who he is, and certainly the most fervent of Atlanta Falcons’ fans do. But I doubt if he’s readily recognizable to fans of the Georgia Bulldogs.
He probably should be.
Ulbrich is the main reason that Roquan Smith is playing linebacker for the SEC champion Bulldogs. And in case you haven’t heard, that has been a very good thing for Georgia.
Smith was announced Sunday as the winner of the Butkus Award, which goes annually to the top linebacker in the nation. He’s the first Georgia player to win that prestigious award. On Monday, Smith also was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also was nominated for the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy — both for national defensive player of the year — and maybe a few others we don’t know about yet.
Regardless, Smith already has put up a pretty good argument for being the greatest linebacker in the history of UGA football. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs won the SEC championship and are heading to the College Football Playoff.
“God had it ordered the whole way,” Larry Harold, Smith’s former coach at Macon County High School, said Monday. “He knew Roquan always wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog. He just had to work it out.”
And so it is. But it almost wasn’t.
That’s where Ulbrich comes in. Ulbrich is not the only reason Smith is at Georgia — which we will get more into later — but he’s a big one. Currently, Ulbrich is the linebackers coach for the Falcons, but on Feb. 3, 2015, he coached linebackers for the UCLA Bruins. As such, he was the primary recruiter of one Roquan Daevon Smith.
And Ulbrich had done one heck of a job recruiting Smith. Ulbrich convinced Smith, then a UGA “lean,” that he needed to take his final official visit to UCLA the weekend before National Signing Day. And Ulbrich made sure that Smith used every minute of that visit. In fact, the 4-star prospect actually didn’t make it back to his tiny hometown of Montezuma until Monday morning.
By then, Smith had silently committed to UCLA, and it was the NCAA’s quiet period in recruiting. Smith intended to surprise everybody with his big Bruins decision at his nationally televised signing ceremony the following Wednesday. Harold was the only man in all of Macon County who knew that.
Smith spent the night before his signing ceremony with Harold and his family. Harold said he could already sense some anxiety and confusion from his star player as soon as they woke up that morning. It got worse by the time they got to the school.
“When we went into the gym, everybody in Montezuma was there, and they were all wearing red and black,” Harold said, laughing at it now. “So he was freaking out.”
Located almost dead center in the state, Macon County is a UGA stronghold. Harold said it hadn’t dawned on Smith until then how much everybody else wanted him to sign with the Bulldogs.
Turns out, the fun was just getting started.
As Smith was busy telling the whole town and ESPNU’s live national television audience about his plans to play ball for the Bruins, Georgia’s coaches were busy blowing up Harold’s phone. Tight ends coach John Lilly was the Bulldogs’ primary recruiter on Smith, so the majority of messages were from him. But Harold also was getting messages from then-coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. They were all essentially saying the same thing.
“Please don’t let Roquan sign any paperwork until y’all have a chance to hear from us.”
The Georgia coaches didn’t realize that Harold was already a step ahead of them. He had discussed that option with Smith before they took the stage.
“I told him right then, ‘I can tell how nervous you are about the situation, so I’m not going to turn these papers in until you tell me you’re 100 percent sure. I don’t care what you say on ESPN,’ ” said Harold, now the coach and athletics director at Central High School in Macon. “He was so relieved when I said that, because UCLA had been on us all morning to go ahead and fax them the paperwork.”
They never did.
As is fairly well known by now, Smith never sent in any paperwork to Georgia, either. He became one of the first — and one of still only a few major college prospects — to not sign a national letter-of-intent with anybody. But soon after his ceremony, Smith started thinking he wanted to become a member of the Bulldogs.
According to Harold, that decision was solidified when they got the news from Lilly that Ulbrich actually wasn’t even going to be at UCLA anymore. Ulbrich already had agreed to a deal to come to Atlanta to join Mike Smith’s staff.
“Coach Lilly said, ‘Does he know Jeff Ulbrich is not going to be there when he gets there?’ ” Harold recounted. “When we found out that was true, that pretty much did it.
“Roquan said, ‘Coach, I’m so glad you didn’t send those papers in.’ ”
You can bet Georgia fans are, too. It’s hard to imagine it working out much better for the Bulldogs.
Smith has been good throughout his career, but he has developed into a full-on defensive beast this season. Now a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior, Smith leads the Bulldogs with 113 tackles this season and has 215 while starting the last two seasons.
Never was Smith more productive than he was Saturday in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn. He finished with 13 tackles, a sack and 2 fumble recoveries and earned MVP honors for the game.
Harold had a feeling his star student was about ready to go off against the Tigers.
“He always shows up in the big games,” Harold said. “I was texting with him Friday before the game like I do every Friday, and I was reminding him of 2014 when we played the region championship against Lamar County. I said, ‘That was a big game, too, and you remember how you did that night?’ ”
Smith had 256 yards and 3 touchdowns on offense and 24 tackles and 7 tackles for loss on defense.
That’s exactly what Smith relayed after the game: “You try to never make the moment too big or anything like that.”
The moments keep getting bigger for Smith and the Bulldogs. The next challenge for them is No. 2 Oklahoma and its Heisman Trophy-frontrunner quarterback Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl. The winner comes to Atlanta to play for the national championship.
Harold will be there if Smith is. And he expects him to be.
“Oklahoma likes to throw that ball, but I don’t think they’ve seen a defense like they’re going to see out there,” he said. “I know they haven’t played [a] linebacker that can cover like Roquan.”
So, as it turns out, Smith will finally play a game on UCLA’s home field. Considering how it started, it’s only fitting that he would do so wearing a Georgia Bulldogs uniform.