UGA Football

Roquan Smith became a Georgia legend at linebacker. Now it's time to see who steps up in his absence

Georgia’s Roquan Smith (3) and Natrez Patrick tackle Georgia Tech's KirVonte Benson in a game last season.
Georgia’s Roquan Smith (3) and Natrez Patrick tackle Georgia Tech's KirVonte Benson in a game last season. Georgia Sports Communications

Roquan Smith will go down as one of the best defenders to play at Georgia.

He also made the right decision to strike while the iron is hot in terms of entering the NFL draft. Smith, who admitted it was tough to leave the Bulldogs a year early, will be near-impossible to replace. His combination of awareness, explosiveness and leadership was rare.

He ended his junior season with 137 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He took home the Butkus Award for being the nation’s top linebacker. He was also a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which go the player those groups determine to be the best overall defender in the nation.

Smith isn’t the only inside linebacker leaving Georgia. Reggie Carter, who started six games as a fifth-year senior, will also be missed. Carter also brought valuable leadership and a great understanding of the game of football. Not having these two inside linebackers in the meeting room will be different for a team that relied considerably on them this past season.

They left: Smith, Carter

They return: Natrez Patrick (Sr.), Monty Rice (Soph.), Juwan Taylor (Sr.), Tae Crowder (Jr.), Nate McBride (Soph.), Jaden Hunter (Soph.)

On the way: Channing Tindall

What to watch: For now, Patrick is with the football team. As it has been documented, Patrick was arrested for a third time for misdemeanor possession of marijuana in Barrow County just hours after the SEC Championship victory over Auburn. Patrick also failed two probation drug tests, which led to an agreement with Athens-Clarke County to spend time at a drug rehab facility. But Patrick has since been seen participating in winter workouts, as evidenced in videos UGA has posted online. He is enrolled in classes for the spring semester. As for whether Patrick is suspended to start the season, that remains to be seen.

Given the losses Georgia absorbed with Smith leaving for the NFL and Carter graduating, Patrick would be the top option to step into a leadership role. Patrick likely won’t have another chance to slip up, however. It will be important for the Atlanta native to stay clean and stay out of trouble. If all goes well for Patrick, a redemption type of season could be in store, which would undoubtedly help his professional stock.

While Patrick’s status with the team will be key, the Bulldogs were able to get a couple of inside linebackers some experience while he was suspended during the 2017 season. In the first two games of the suspension, Carter was also recovering from a concussion. Therefore, Taylor and Rice were asked to step up and play numerous snaps in games against Vanderbilt and Missouri.

Those two, along with Crowder, also saw time against Georgia Tech, with the Bulldogs using many more linebackers than normal to slow down the Yellow Jackets’ option offense. McBride and Hunter will also be players to monitor throughout the offseason. McBride offers a lot of speed, evidenced by his ability to crack playing time on special teams as a freshman. Hunter burned his redshirt by appearing in a couple of games, but he used his first year to mostly develop his game behind others in front of him on the depth chart.

Outlook: Of all of Georgia’s position groups, inside linebacker is the most interesting to watch this offseason. It’s one thing to lose two of your top three on a particular unit. It’s another when one of those players was as important as Smith was to Georgia’s overall success. But Georgia has recruited the position well. Perhaps it is now time for another player to step up and begin a similar path that Smith set out for himself three seasons ago.