Georgia's Nolan Smith ready to reclaim championship culture

University of Georgia photo / Georgia senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith is eager to help retool a Bulldogs defense that had eight players drafted into the NFL.

There have been top-ranked high school football players in recent years who seemed destined to spend just three years in college, most notably former South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, former LSU running back Leonard Fournette and former Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Georgia senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith never felt the pressure for such a rapid timetable.

"I've just always wanted to be Nolan Smith," he said last week at Southeastern Conference media days in Atlanta. "I try and be myself every day, and I came back ultimately for my mom. My mom wants me to get something that's more valuable.

"She wants me to get ready for life after football. I don't want to be a football player forever."

The 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Savannah was the nation's No. 1 prospect in the 2019 signing class, having spent his junior and senior seasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He shared Georgia's defensive newcomer of the year award as a freshman and has racked up 96 tackles and 13 tackles for loss through his first three seasons.

While this past April's NFL draft provided plenty of mixed emotions for Smith as defensive linemen Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt, linebackers Quay Walker, Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall, and defensive backs Lewis Cine and Derion Kendrick were drafted to their respective teams, he was not second-guessing his decision.

GEORGIA

Last season: 14-1 (8-0 SEC)Opener: Sept. 3 vs. Oregon in Atlanta (3:30 p.m. on ABC)Fun fact: Georgia has lost half as many divisional games (two) in the past five seasons as Alabama (four).Up next: Kentucky

And if Smith's mother, Cha'Keima Bigham, is the happiest about her son returning for another year in Athens, then seventh-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is a close second.

"What an incredible personality he has," Smart said. "He's one of those players who pushes our team. As strength coaches and leaders in our organization, we don't like for our players to bend over, because we feel like it shows weakness if you bend over during your runs.

"One day, I had my young 10-year-old, Andrew, out there, and he was trying to keep up with the players running 40s. Nolan screamed about being bent over, and Andrew was bent over and popped up real fast. When Nolan screams at you, you wake up quick."

Although Georgia had a record 15 overall draft selections, including five defenders in the first round, the Bulldogs are not lacking for returning players who had key roles in the program's first national championship since 1980. Even the defense, which was ravaged more than the offense through the draft, returns Jalen Carter up front, Smith to lead the linebackers and national championship hero Keelee Ringo at cornerback.

Smith said he needed just 24 hours to celebrate the 33-18 win over Alabama in Indianapolis, and he is ready to replicate the chemistry that took the Bulldogs to the top.

"Last year was about the culture as far as connection and knowing the person next to me and why he's playing football and what was his journey here," Smith said. "When you get to know someone you work with, you'll work harder for them. You get a lot more out of things that way, and we had sessions cut out of our football time for us to sit down and talk.

"It's not playing for NIL deals. It's not playing to go viral. It's not playing for TikTok. It's about playing for the guy next to you and being able to push with him through tough situations. The best teams I've been a part of play for each other."

Smith credits Smart with the mentality of wanting to play for each other, and he credits sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on, for tuning out the naysayers and playing winning football every week. The sizable personnel losses coupled with the hype that Alabama and Ohio State are receiving have placed the Bulldogs a bit under the radar nationally, and Smith is fine with that.

Georgia is loaded with promising new faces and now has a blueprint for championship success.

"I'm ready to see our young guys play football," Smith said. "When I watched (current New York Giants outside linebacker) Azeez (Ojulari) in front of me those two years and sat on the bench, people thought that maybe I wasn't any good, but I was just waiting for my turn and my opportunity. For a lot of guys here, that's just how it is.

"We have so many good players, and some guys have to wait for their opportunities and their turn. Some guys don't jump into the transfer portal and want to wait and be a part of something that's bigger than themselves."

Downs picks Tide

Caleb Downs, the highest-rated Peach State prospect on the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the 2023 signing cycle, committed Wednesday to Alabama. The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Hoschton, who is rated the nation's top safety and the No. 12 overall recruit, picked the Crimson Tide over Georgia, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.