Nolan Smith shines in Jacksonville
Photo courtesy of Georgia Athletics
Nolan Smith had the game a lot of people have been waiting for on Saturday.
Smith came to Georgia as the No. 1 player in the 2017 class out of IMG Academy, by way of Calvary Day in Savannah.
Expectations for players ranked that highly will always be massive. Think Jadeveon Clowney & Leonard Fournette territory.
But for Smith, on the stat sheet at least, it had been an underwhelming start to his career. Five sacks through eighteen career games and just one forced fumble.
Smith had been solid, but not a gamebreaker. He hadn’t had that moment.
What better place to change that narrative than Jacksonville?
Nolan Smith finally had his moment. Late in the second quarter, Florida was backed up inside their own five following a Stetson Bennett interception. Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson ran a quarterback draw on second down, and as his momentum was carrying him forward, Nolan Smith simply ripped the ball out of his hands. The definition of a “takeaway”.
The play was massive. It was a pivotal point in the game, with Florida down just three in the second quarter. The takeaway set Georgia up in great field position and would lead to a James Cook touchdown the very next play.
Smith wasn’t done. On Florida’s next possession, Anthony Richardson tried to push the ball down the middle of the field. His receiver looked open, but Georgia had dropped lineman Travon Walker into coverage and he tipped the ball into the air. Smith was able to snatch it out of the air for his first career interception, setting Georgia up in terrific position again. Just like with the fumble recovery, Georgia was able to score on the very next play, with Stetson Bennett and Kearis Jackson connecting for a thirty-six yard touchdown strike.
It’s fitting that in a game in which Kirby Smart credited recruiting more than coaching, the former No. 1 overall recruit would have the biggest game of his career.
It’s not fair to call Smith’s career to this point “disappointing”. He has played a ton of snaps for what has been the most consistently good defense in college football over the past three years. His position is also probably Georgia’s deepest unit. A unit that was so deep Jermaine Johnson transferred to Florida State on the express purpose of getting more snaps. Johnson currently has 10.5 tackles for loss (7.5 sacks) and is a favorite to win ACC Defensive Player of the Year.
There aren’t a ton of individual stars for this Georgia defense and that’s by design. They collectively maul you. Rotating in one five star for another. And, typically, they don’t have to play full games, with backups getting a significant portion of the snaps in most games. For reference: inside linebacker Channing Tindall has more tackles (40) than the guy he backs up, Nakobe Dean (37).
With all that being said, it was still nice to see Nolan Smith shine. The junior is a vocal leader on this team and has played a huge part in building this historic defense.