HOOVER, Ala. — Kirby Smart had a tough decision about which players to bring with him to SEC Media Days, especially when it came to the defensive side of the ball. There are a lot of leaders and experienced players on defense, including seniors John Atkins, Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter and Dominick Sanders.
In the end, Smart decided to bring junior linebacker Roquan Smith with him to represent the defense in suburban Birmingham. And that’s significant.
“It was a tough decision of who to bring defensively because we have a lot of experienced players,” Smart said. “But Roquan played probably the most snaps on our defense last year. He’s a new hybrid linebacker. He played receiver and everything else in high school there at Macon County. Not only that, but he’s a tremendous leader. Coming to this is about leadership. If you’re going to be a spokesperson for the team, you better hold yourself accountable and do all the things we ask you to do, and he’s done that.”
After the 2016 season, Smith probably was the best player most people hadn’t heard of. Coming into this one, the word’s starting to get around.
Smith finished last season as Georgia’s leading tackler with 95 stops, even though he didn’t start three of the Bulldogs’ game. This season. Georgia wants him on the field as much as possible.
“I’m excited about where he can take the team,” said Smart, who coached inside linebackers while also serving as defensive coordinator at Alabama. “When you’re going to be the signal-caller, the guy that makes the calls, you’ve got to be a guy who commands the respect of others. Roquan does.”
Smith played a lot as a backup and contributed on special teams as a freshman. But his breakout came last season. He had 5 tackles for loss, 5 QB pressures and a pass breakup to go along with the 95 tackles.
The pace picked up for Smith at the end of the season, too. He had 13 tackles in each of the final two games, first against Georgia Tech and then against TCU in the Liberty Bowl. He also had 11 stops in the Bulldogs’ win over South Carolina.
“I’ve always had the ability to play or whatever,” Smith said Tuesday. “My freshman year I had a guy in front of me named [Jake] Ganus, who I actually learned a lot from. He’s a great friend of mine still. I didn’t have the grasp of playbook I have now. I actually had no idea what to do. The second year I gained a lot of knowledge. So I just wasn’t able to showcase it till then. And it’s great to be developed by a guy like Kirby Smart.”
The most amazing part of Smith’s rise late in the year was that he played much of the time. After the season, it was discovered he had been playing with a shoulder injury. He had what he described as “some minor things done” to it in the offseason and sat out most of Georgia’s spring practice. Smith was active during the 15 workouts and spring game. Trainers just held him out of contact.
“We got it all fixed up and we’re ready to go now,” Smith said. “It was a shoulder thing. I don’t feel like I lost any ground. I was out there doing conditioning and things like that. I was getting reps and doing walk-throughs and stuff like that. I feel like I gained a lot during spring.”
Where Smith finds himself at the moment is where everybody expected him to be in a rather high-profile recruitment out of tiny Macon County High School in Montezuma, Ga. His signing ceremony was broadcast live on ESPN2.
At the time he “shocked the world” by announcing that he’d go across the country to play for UCLA and coach Jim Mora. But soon after the announcement, it was revealed that the assistant coach who had recruited him – Jeff Ulbrich – was leaving to join the staff of the Atlanta Falcons. Informed of this development by Georgia and former assistant coach John Lilly, Smith switched his commitment to the Bulldogs and actually never signed a National Letter of Intent.
At the time, it was thought to be a ploy that high-profile recruits might start utilizing more often. Alas, it didn’t become a trend. But today Smith is thankful that things turned out the way they did.
“I’m blessed that I actually made the choice to come here for Georgia,” Smith said. “It’s just an amazing blessing and I’m so happy here. I could not imagine be anywhere else. Athens, Georgia, and the University of Georgia is so amazing, I can’t imagine anything different.”
That whole episode was a great illustration that there always remains a gap between perception and reality. At the time, Smith had a high-piled hairdo with a cool, bleached-blond streak right up front. And he gained national notoriety for pulling on some blue-and-yellow gloves to reveal his UCLA choice.
That didn’t really match the persona he had locally. He’s described by his high school principal as quiet and hard-working. He has a close relationship with Roy Yoder, a local well digger and plumber in Montezuma who befriended Smith as a member of the high school’s booster club and put him to work in the fields of Macon County.
“I was just chatting with him two or three days ago,” Smith said of Yoder. “He was telling me he’s just out there still working in the fields. He’s a hard-working man. I rarely get down there anymore. There’s not a whole lot of time. But I try to get back when I can, maybe four or five times a year.”
Smith’s matriculation at UGA hasn’t come without some bumps. Last season he was swept up in a police investigation when the smell of pot brought authorities to the dorm room he shared with fellow linebacker Natrez Patrick. No charges came as a result, however, and Smith and Patrick avoided suspension.
He and Patrick remain roommates and extremely close friends. And as starters at the two inside linebacker positions, together they’re a big reason there is so much optimism surrounding Georgia’s 2017 defense.
“We’re pretty good buddies on and off the field,” Smith said. “I look at him as a brother. He’s another guy I think who’s going to have an awesome year this year. We don’t really listen to all the hype and what not. We’re just committed to grinding each and every day and making each day the best day. We feel like we can do something special, not just us two but us as a defense.”
But expectations are particularly high for Smith. He has been described by Smart as the perfect “hybrid linebacker” for today’s defenses, which must defend quick-moving spread offenses. Smith possesses the size to take on blockers and fill the gaps in the line of scrimmage, but also the speed to drop into coverage and cover running backs and flankers.
On Tuesday, Smart compared Smith to former Alabama star C.J. Mosley. Smith heard about it.
“That’s truly an honor to be compared to a guy like that,” he said. “He’s made two or three Pro Bowls, done a lot of things at Alabama. To be compared to someone like that means a lot. As a player I feel like I have a lot of things to offer. But I can’t compare myself to one person. I’m just me.”
And Smith said he’s not finished a product. He said there are several areas he can improve on before the 2017 season, which could be his last in Athens.
“I think I can only go up from here,” he said.
Smart seems to think so as well.