When Roquan Smith initially announced his commitment on national signing day in 2015, a premier football institution’s placard was left off the table.
Smith was down to Georgia, UCLA, Michigan and Texas A&M. At the ceremony, he chose UCLA, putting on a pair of powder blue and gold gloves on his hands for a nationally televised audience to see. He soon had a change of heart and pledged to Georgia on a later date.
But the marquee team not in consideration that day? Alabama. The defensive coordinator of that program then? Kirby Smart.
Smart admitted he didn’t recruit Smith too hard, which is why Alabama wasn’t in the race. Since Smith wasn’t the prototypical thumping linebacker Alabama usually covets, Smart wasn’t sure Smith was a fit for head coach Nick Saban, even after camping with the Crimson Tide. Smart smiled when reflecting on how his, and Smith’s, fortunes turned out for the best when it was all said and done.
“Sometimes you thank God for unanswered prayers, right?” Smart said, referencing a well-known Garth Brooks tune. “That’s the case in this situation where he’s become a really good player. He’s developed a leadership pattern that really represents our university really well.”
Smith was one of five finalists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which was handed out at the Charlotte Convention Center. The Nagurski Trophy went to N.C. State defensive lineman Bradley Chubb.
At the Georgia football program’s annual gala Sunday, Smith was surprised with a video from Dick Butkus, who revealed Smith was the recipient of this year’s Butkus Award. The Butkus Award goes to the nation’s top linebacker.
Smith admitted his surprise when it came to the Butkus Award, which was then presented to him by Butkus’ son, Matt Butkus.
“I had no idea,” Smith said. “I was up on the stage and I didn’t have any idea. I was in awe. I didn’t expect it at all.”
Smith, dressed in a black tuxedo and bow tie for Monday’s event, has enjoyed a tremendous season for the No. 3 Bulldogs, who will face No. 2 Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. Smith leads Georgia with 113 tackles, 10.5 tackles and 5.5 sacks.
During Georgia’s 28-7 win over Auburn in the SEC Championship, Smith finished with 13 tackles (10 for loss), two fumble recoveries and a sack. Seven of Smith’s solo tackles came in the first half.
Both Smith and Smart were asked if the Montezuma native, who was also named the AP SEC defensive player of the year Monday, should have received Heisman Trophy consideration.
While the Heisman’s intention is to award the best overall player in the nation, it normally goes to a quarterback or running back. This year’s finalists are Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and Stanford running back Bryce Love.
“I think it’s an offensive award. It’s been like that,” Smith said. “I don’t really have any say in that. It is what it is.”
Smart typically doesn’t stump for individual awards but noted Smith’s intangibles fit the bill for them.
“I think that Roquan is a phenomenal player,” Smart said. “I think if you polled the SEC coaches, they would say he was probably that way. I haven’t had to game-plan against him or scheme against him, but he is certainly worthy when it comes to attitude, effort, leadership, all those qualities.”
It’s been quite the journey for Smith, who nearly didn’t come to Georgia. With his commitment to UCLA not lasting long, Smith ultimately decided to play in-state for former Georgia head coach Mark Richt, who was fired after his freshman season.
But in came Smart, who plugged Smith into a starting role during his sophomore season in 2016. As a junior, Smith, the centerpiece of Georgia’s defense, has helped lead the Bulldogs to their first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Over three years, Smith has become one of the nation’s best players, evidenced by his nomination for some of the nation’s most prestigious awards.
“It’s just a tremendous honor to even be a finalist for such an award like this,” Smith said. “The Butkus Award is pretty nice. It’s set up in my room right now. Just being a finalist for these types of awards is surreal. I’m grateful and thankful for the opportunity to be in here.”