ATHENS — People around the Georgia football program, whether coaches, fans or media, long have thought Roquan Smith was one of the best defensive players in the country. They clearly have some company in that feeling now.
Smith has been named one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which goes to the nation’s top defensive player. Georgia’s Champ Bailey won the award in 1998.
Justin Houston was a finalist in 2010, and David Pollack was a two-time finalist, 2002 and 2004.
A junior inside linebacker, Smith leads Georgia with 82 tackles and is the key cog behind a defense that, even after the blowout loss at Auburn, ranks fifth in the nation in yards allowed.
The Nagurski award will be handed out at a banquet in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 4, two nights after the SEC Championship Game. The keynote speaker at the event: Georgia coach Kirby Smart.
Among the other finalists is Bradley Chubb, an N.C. State linebacker and cousin of Georgia star tailback Nick Chubb. The other finalists are Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell and Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver.
A native of Montezuma, Ga., Smith has 49 solo tackles through 10 games and a forced fumble. Georgia ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (14.5 points per game), rushing defense (103.8) and total yards allowed (277.5).
Smith led the defense in tackles last season but has elevated his game as a junior, even after missing spring practice with a pectoral muscle injury.
‘’I would say his understanding of the defense is much more, but his leadership is even greater than that,” Smart said of Smith last week. “He has not been afraid to speak when he felt strongly about something, and I think that’s a rare trait in a junior. So he’s not worried about what other people think about him, and that’s what leaders have to be. He’s been that.’’