More often than not, Roquan Smith will get to the edge first.
Time and again during Georgia’s unbeaten-to-date season, Smith has prevented running backs from turning upfield for a big gain. Georgia’s early-season win over Notre Dame showed just how demoralizing Smith can be to opposing offenses.
Whether it was quarterback Brandon Wimbush or running back Josh Adams, Smith was there, taking a perfect angle to prevent long edge runs. And he has done in that every game since.
“I definitely take pride in that because I want to make sure they know early that I will be here all night,” Smith said. “It’s just some sense of pride when you see somebody and you know this guy is fast too. It’s just that I am a fierce competitor.”
Smith leads Georgia with 70 tackles and has also recorded 2.5 sacks. A semifinalist for both the Bednarik and Butkus Award honors, Smith is Georgia’s closest thing to a sure for a postseason All-American selection. His sideline-to-sideline speed sets him apart from other inside linebackers in the country.
Smith estimates he could run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, but would be able to hit 4.4 with some training. Nose tackle John Atkins noted that as long as both Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter are on the field, he doesn’t have to run too far on a given play.
While Smith, at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, possesses the size and speed of the new-age inside linebacker, it happens to be his mental makeup that impresses his teammates.
Asked what gives Smith the edge, his teammates all said the same thing.
“He has speed, but Roquan is smart. He’s a student of the game,” running back Sony Michel said. “People don’t really know that, but he’s a student of the game. He’s always watching film, he’s always asking questions to get better.”
“Roquan’s a smart athlete. He’s a student of the game,” inside linebacker Reggie Carter said. “He watches film a lot, he breaks down the opponent. He goes each day on a different package – what they do on first down one day, what they do on second down, what they do on third down.”
Added Atkins: “He’s got a football IQ out of this world. Roquan, he can make calls not only for the defensive front, but for the secondary too. That’s big for a linebacker who can communicate both ways. Some days he’s telling the safeties what to do.”
Smith is one of those football players who double as film junkies. During his downtime, whether it is between classes or after practice, he pulls up tape of the upcoming opponent.
Head coach Kirby Smart said Smith started evolving as a player and leader during the spring when he was injured and unable to practice. Smith would be at practice watching plays behind the huddle with a script in his hand. It hurt Smith to miss practice and he started becoming more vocal with his teammates during this period.
“He has not been afraid to speak when he felt strongly about something, and I think that’s a rare trait in a junior,” Smart said.
As recent as a decade ago, Smith might not have been the ideal size to be an inside linebacker in college or in the NFL. With offenses at both levels looking to spread defenses out, Smith is now a perfect fit for the position.
CBSSports.com has Smith, who will have to decide whether to forgo his senior season for the NFL, going No. 13 overall to the Oakland Raiders in its most recent mock draft.
Early in high school at Macon County, Smith decided to focus his time on defense, which has been a great move for Smith’s long-term future.
“I realized early I don’t like taking the blows,” Smith said. “I like delivering them.”