In February 2015, Macon County High School senior Roquan Smith was the nation’s leading sports headline — though it wasn’t a position the 4-star football prospect sought.
Verbally committed to UCLA, Smith was set to add his name to the growing legacy of Bruins linebackers; a natural heir apparent to Anthony Barr, Eric Kendrick and Myles Jack. Only, Smith did not fax his national letter of intent on signing day.
Rumors of defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich making the same coast-to-cast move as Smith — just in reverse order, from California to Georgia — gained traction. National signing day came and went, and Ulbrich’s future was up in the air. UCLA or the Atlanta Falcons? Likewise, Roquan Smith was faced with uncertainty about his future.
The situation involving Smith and Ulbrich’s mishandling of the linebacker exposed one of the more unseemly elements to recruiting. It also kept Smith closer to home at the University of Georgia, where he faxed the NLI originally intended for UCLA, albeit nine days later after the glamour and spotlight of National Signing Day faded.
“It’s crazy just thinking about life and how life throws you curve balls,” Smith said at Rose Bowl media day on Dec. 30 “You never know how life is going to pan out, but you just hope it pans out for the best.”
Smith’s path since National Signing Day 2015 turned out for the best. The unanimous All-American linebacker starred for the SEC champion Bulldogs in 2017, racking up 113 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks on the way to the program’s first College Football Playoff appearance. With a semifinal win over Oklahoma, Smith leads the charge for Georgia’s first national championship in almost four decades.
Even so, the path to the pinnacle of college football wasn’t without more turns. UCLA’s missteps in the recruiting process opened the door for Mark Richt and his staff. Richt lasted just one season into Smith’s Georgia tenure before he was fired, leading to the hire of former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
Smart’s arrival and the implementation of a new vision for Georgia brought with it challenges.
“Definitely a learning curve when…you have something new for the first time, have new people,” Smith said. “You’re trying to learn [about] those people as well as your defense and everything like that. Definitely a learning curve you have to get through, but I think it was all worth it.
“I enjoyed it, actually,” he added. “Enjoyed the process.”
Smith may have enjoyed the process because his natural ability made the job facing Smart and his staff easier. So says the Bulldogs head coach.
“We didn’t teach Roquan how to close,” Smart said. “He’s become a better, more confident player in the system. I do think the more you play in the system, the faster you play. I’ve seen some young linebackers get paralyzed through the years, whether it’s Rueben (Foster), Reggie (Ragland), C.J. (Mosley), they only got better and the systems built for that position to be really successful. So he’s been more successful because he understands it.
“But the talent just takes over when he goes out and plays,” Smart added.
It’s not always so simple as that for Smith, however, as the Rose Bowl Game demonstrated.
Even in reaching the Playoff, life threw Smith one of those curveballs: The Bulldogs’ semifinal was set across the country in California at the Rose Bowl, the venue that was very nearly the linebacker’s home field.
And for a half, the Roquan Smith who earned All-American recognition played well below that standard. He was as much of a non-factor as a defender with six tackles could be. Oklahoma’s run game dominated Georgia, with Rodney Anderson rolling up 125 yards at a 9.6-per carry clip, and Smith was doing little to impede that.
Playing at the UCLA venue that was almost his home, Smith and the rest of the Georgia rush defense frankly resembled UCLA, which finished ranked dead-last nationally against the run.
“I don’t exactly know what the feeling was. I just knew it wasn’t playing to our style,” Smith said of Georgia’s first-half performance. “So we had to make those adjustments, and we did.”
The Bulldogs allowed just 29 second-quarter yards, and surrounded just one offensive touchdown through the final two quarters and two overtimes. Smith was the catalyst of the resurgence, making 11 tackles on the night, a tackle for loss, and coming through with plays at critical moments to slow the Sooners.
Roquan says NO! pic.twitter.com/BPfaQuitha
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 2, 2018
His performance landed Smith Defensive Player of the Game. Visions of gridiron glory on the hallowed turf of the Rose Bowl came to pass, they just took a circuitous route.
“I just can’t envision myself anywhere else besides the University of Georgia,” Smith said. “Being here is like a dream come true, and I’m pretty sure I would rather be playing on this field for the Rose Bowl rather than having it as my field each and every day.”