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No what-ifs, ands or buts, Smith leads Bulldogs defense into the playoffs

The what-ifs run all through the Roquan Smith story – and, consequently this special Georgia season. And they are essential to both, like the veins that define a marble slab.

What if Smith actually had signed on signing day, directly after declaring his intentions to uproot from the tiny central Georgia town of Montezuma, and taken his talents all the way west to UCLA?

What if that early February day in 2015, designed to be the moment dreams come true, hadn’t dissolved into a puddle of doubt and confusion? What if he hadn’t walked into his high school gym for the signing ceremony, only to be met by seemingly the entire community dressed in Bulldogs red and black? “It blew his mind,” remembered his then coach at Macon County High, Larry Harold. “He was like, ‘Coach, I can’t do this. I can’t let these people down.’ He was having second thoughts walking into the gym.”

Even after modeling a pair of UCLA gloves, Smith didn’t sign that day. He left everyone at the altar, and threw the recruiting sub-culture into convulsions. His coach hustled him out of there for a quiet lunch. They ended up at the Cheddar’s in Warner Robins. Harold had the pasta. His wife and Smith got the chicken fingers, as best he can recall. And they all chewed over one top prospect’s future.

If UCLA’s linebacker coach – the one who had spent years building cross-country ties to Smith – didn’t have one foot out the door at the time, the story’s different. So, give the Falcons an assist. They hired away Jeff Ulbrich on the cusp of signing day. 

What if Ulbrich had stayed with the Bruins? “That’s a hard question to answer,” Harold said. “I don’t know man, it would have been tough. Roquan is so loyal. Once you get him to trust you, when he knows you care about him, it would have been hard to break that loyalty (to Ulbrich and UCLA). It would have been hard. I can’t answer that one.”

If there had been an early national signing day then like the one that just passed, Smith likely would have been finishing his junior year at UCLA today. 

But there wasn’t. And Smith didn’t. A couple weeks after the aborted signing ceremony, he flipped to Georgia and here he is today preparing to play in the national semifinal against Oklahoma. Lost on no one is the site of the game – the Rose Bowl, UCLA’s home venue.

His team has thrived (while 6-6 UCLA fired Jim Mora and will play without him in the Cactus Bowl the day after Christmas). And Smith’s shelf now includes the Butkus Award, emblematic of the nation’s top college linebacker. 

Yes, said Smith, “It’s pretty crazy to think about the what-if.”

“If I could answer the what-if, I’d be like the baddest man in the land,” he said. “I can only envision myself here (at UGA). I can’t really see myself anywhere else. Just being here, the opportunities I’ve had here, the family atmosphere, it has been amazing. I can’t see myself anywhere else.”

Comfortable as the centerpiece to the Bulldogs defense, Smith has distinguished himself this year through a relentlessness that extends length and breadth. A man in his position is supposed to lead a team in tackles, and Smith has obliged, all over the lot (113 thus far). Ten and a half of those have been for a loss, 5 ½ were sacks.  

According to Pro Football Focus, Smith missed not a single tackle against the run this season. Zero. Perfection, as difficult a concept as that is to embrace. If Smith was in the vicinity of a ball-carrier, said runner was ground-bound. 

Asked to play word association, Bulldogs linebacker Reggie Carter came up with these adjectives at the mention of Smith’s name: “Freak. Athletic. Fast. So many rush through your mind. That guy is amazing. Yeah, amazing is one.”

If the package is to be complete in the eyes of the public, the word “modest” is always a good fit as well. OK, there’s that, too.

“He doesn’t talk about himself,” Georgia nose guard John Atkins said. “Roquan is real humble. You don’t ever see him bragging. It’s work first. And one thing I like about him, he’s going to bounce back in any situation.”

Smith’s most recent game has been his most memorable. He so thoroughly harassed Auburn – two fumble recoveries, 13 tackles, a sack – that there was no choice but to make a defender the MVP of the SEC Championship Game. 

Here’s yet another adjective that fits: Aware.

Smith almost acts insulted when asked the perfectly understandable question – given his age and the now-centric generation from which he hails – if he knows Dick Butkus at all. That name on his new trophy mean anything to the kid?

“Even though I’m kind of young – he was way before my days – but you just hear his history. That speaks for itself,” Smith said.

“He played reckless. He’s a guy who had no regard for his body or anybody else. If he had a chance to take you out, he definitely would.” So, yes, he is familiar with the Bears linebacker, who peaked 45 years ago.

None of that would take Harold by surprise. Soon after accepting the job at Macon County, Harold was approached in a school hallway by this young ‘un the coach hadn’t yet met. I know who you are, the boy said. And he proceeded to rattle off some of Harold’s bio, his schooling Southern University and some of his assistant coaching stops in Louisiana and the Atlanta metro area.  

“He had my whole resume and a bio down. I thought he was a senior,” Harold said.

“No, coach. I’m just a freshman,” Smith told him. 

By game time, safe to say Smith will have put in far more research on the Rose Bowl headliner, Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Makes for kind of a nifty match-up story: Heisman winner vs. Butkus Award winner, sudden death, winner take all, at least for a week. 

“You’re excited for any new challenge that comes in life,” Smith said. “I think they have a phenomenal offense and we’re looking forward to the matchup.”

It is Kirby Smart’s sworn duty to shoot down all possible easy, obvious storylines. So, he steps in here: “We can't make this Roquan Smith against Baker Mayfield because that's not the case. He's not assigned to Baker. He's assigned to a gap. He's assigned to a coverage responsibility. He's assigned to a running back, man-to-man. He has all kinds of assignments. It's not as simple as people want to make it seem.”

Still, if Smith is not spending a good portion of New Year’s Day in Mayfield’s shadow, then an inquisition must surely follow. 

The impending close of the season also brings with it the questions that come to all juniors at the top of their football class. This season, the Bulldogs were able to bring back a core of players who might have left early for the NFL draft – and that was a major factor in lifting them to these playoffs. So dynamic has Smith been this season, so closely does he conform to the professional template of a sideline-to-sideline defender, that is seems increasingly unlikely he will see his senior season. Smith is, by multiple expert projections, a mid-first-rounder.

“We make sure it doesn't become a distraction,” Smart told the media last week, “because we know you guys are going to ask him. So, we go to him and say, listen, be prepared for this. This is what we're doing. We'll follow the same exact steps we followed last year with our guys. Everybody gets the same information, everybody makes his own decision. We'll give you all the information you can to make the best decision possible. But let's make sure the focus is on the team, and the focus is on Oklahoma.”

What follows is another big what-if for another day.

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