I’ve told this story before, so apologies in advance. It was October 1980. I was in my first year of covering Kentucky for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The Wildcats had lost to LSU on Saturday night to fall to 2-4. I went to Commonwealth Stadium on Sunday afternoon and was invited by coordinator Charlie Bailey to take a gander at his defense’s next assignment.
I sat with Bailey and his assistants – George Catavolos, Dan Coughlin and Bill Glaser – and watched film of Georgia, which meant watching film of Herschel Walker. The Bulldogs had just beaten Vanderbilt in a game that featured the freshman Herschel at the peak of his powers. They kept doing the coach thing of watching and rewinding, watching and rewinding, but they weren’t yet concerned with where the tight end (mostly Norris Brown, sometimes Clarence Kay) was stationed. These coaches were doing the fan thing.
They were watching Herschel – and laughing out loud. He’d gained 283 yards, still a single-game Georgia record, against Vandy. His second and third touchdowns were him outrunning everybody, which he could do. The first was him running over people – he could do that, too – and shrugging a defender off his left shoulder pad. The coaches went crazy over that one. (Full disclosure: I did, too. And here I note: Georgia hadn’t yet played on national TV, and ESPN wasn’t really a thing. I’d heard Munson’s call of the Tennessee game, but this was my first prolonged eyeball exposure.)
About that time, head coach Fran Curci walked in. This, the defensive coaches would tell me, was rare. An offensive guy, Curci left the defense alone. On this given Sunday, he said, “So show me this guy.” The defensive crew rewound the tape and we watched Herschel again. We were treated to an SEC coach – who had, in 1977, beaten Georgia 33-0 in Athens before Prince Charles and James Brown – laughing and yelling like the rest of us.
“Look at that!” Curci said of the shoulder-pad run. “I’ve never seen anything like this guy!”
Way-too-long-story-not-at-all-short: Kentucky would lose 27-0. Bailey’s defense held – word used advisedly – Herschel to 131 yards on 31 carries, an average of 4.2 per tote. He’d averaged 12.3 against Vandy. For their part, they were relieved that no defensive coaches would be watching their game against Georgia and cackling. Covering Kentucky, I would see Herschel again in 1981 and 1982. What Curci said that Sunday still stands: I’ve never seen anything like him.
And here we come – apologies yet again – to the most deeply buried lede in the history of journalism: Roquan Smith is the best Georgia player I’ve seen since Herschel.
When I get an hour, I’ll cue up the SEC championship game and just watch Roquan Smith, although that’s pretty much what I did in real time Saturday. When Davin Bellamy forced the fumble that changed the game, I figured Smith would get it. He did. When Jarrett Stidham was sacked to end Auburn’s final drive of the first half, I figured Smith had gotten it. He had. When Kerryon Johnson lost the ball at the start of the fourth quarter, I figured Smith would get it. He did.
I’ve seen Georgia nine times in person this season. By the Mississippi State game, I was convinced Smith was the best among Bulldogs. For a time, I wondered if this was just me. Then, at either the Missouri or South Carolina game, I asked esteemed colleague Chip Towers, who sees every game, to name Georgia’s MVP. “Roquan Smith,” he said. (Great minds run alike.)
Smith was so omnipresent against Georgia Tech, which can sometimes make defenses look bad, that you wondered if he were twins. Against Auburn on Saturday, he’d multiplied again – quadruplets this time. Owing to his hometown and Georgia overturning a previous loss – though Smith was the only Bulldog who’d showed up at Jordan-Hare – I kept thinking, “Montezuma’s Revenge,” would make for a pithy headline. This is why they don’t let me write headlines for the print AJC.
Saturday saw Roquan Smith handed a trophy as MVP of the SEC title tilt. Sunday brought the news that he’d been named winner of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. I can’t say I’ve seen every linebacker at every college – I’m not Mel Kiper – but I can’t imagine there’s one better.
Just as the story of Herschel’s recruitment was a saga unto itself – ask Mike Cavan, who spent the winter in Wrightsville – Smith’s was no straight line. He committed to UCLA. Then Jeff Ulbrich, the assistant who’d recruited him, left to become linebackers coach for the Atlanta Falcons. (Jim Mora, then UCLA’s head coach, had also coached the Falcons.) Smith learned of this via social media. Feeling misled, he signed with Georgia and Mark Richt. Actual headline on Bruins Nation, a fan site: “Good riddance, Jeff Ulbrich!”
As it happens, Roquan Smith gets to spend a week in L.A. ahead of Georgia’s semifinal date with Oklahoma. Mora no longer works in Westwood, having been fired yet again. There’s a good chance Smith will leave Georgia after three seasons to turn pro, which – full circle time – Herschel did. In his time left as a Bulldog, the man from Montezuma could become a national champion. Herschel did that, too.
I’m not saying Roquan Smith is Herschel Walker, who remains the greatest college player ever. In my view, Roquan Smith is the best Bulldog since Herschel. No, I didn’t see Sinkwich or Trippi, but I have seen every Georgia player for the past 40 years. David Pollack was my No. 2. I’ve dropped him a notch because I’ve spent the fall watching the guy who wears No. 3.