When you're the nation's No. 1 college football prospect, a microscope comes with the territory.
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (2011), LSU running back Leonard Fournette (2014) and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (2018) were the top overall recruits in their respective classes, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, and all three quickly became stars at their respective schools. That was not the case this season for Georgia freshman outside linebacker Nolan Smith, who has yet to start but has made contributions for the No. 5 Bulldogs (11-2) entering Wednesday night's Sugar Bowl against No. 8 Baylor (11-2).
"I don't think that much was different from what I expected," Smith said. "I didn't want to take anything for granted. I have learned a lot from the seniors. Those guys are 21 or 22, and I was coming out of high school, so I felt like I was learning over and over again.
"I feel like I could have had a better year, and I feel like I have a lot of things I can improve on."
The Bears and Bulldogs are scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on Friday afternoon.
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder from Savannah who played his final two high school seasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, has played in all 13 games this year. He has compiled 16 tackles, 15 quarterback hurries and 2.5 sacks for a defense that has yielded just 162 points, which ranks second nationally behind Clemson (138).
"Nolan is smart, and Nolan listens," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said during the regular season. "When you give Nolan a plan and say, 'This is the way I want you to rush on this defense,' or 'This is the way I want you to rush on this particular tackle,' he does it. He applies what he learns. He plays with just maximum effort.
"He's like a wild man — like his hair is on fire."
Smith has competed at Georgia's most crowded position, which has been headed by redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari and has included Adam Anderson, Robert Beal, Walter Grant and Jermaine Johnson, a top junior college recruit who had to adjust to limited playing time as well. In Georgia's 37-10 loss to LSU in the Southeastern Conference championship game, the Bulldogs opened with seven defensive backs and didn't even have an outside linebacker.
"It wasn't frustrating," Smith said. "You buy into the program here, and you buy into the game plan every week. When it's time for us to shine and go, then it's time for us to go. When it's not our time, we cheer our guys on and try to keep everybody up.
"It's not about one position group. It's about what's best for the team."
Perhaps the most unique aspect of Smith's freshman season is the friendship he has formed with another five-star signee, inside linebacker Nakobe Dean of Horn Lake, Mississippi. The two have not chosen easy academic routes, with Smith majoring in civil engineering and Dean in mechanical engineering.
"It's great," Dean said. "I can always ask him questions, and he can always ask me questions. It's great to have that kind of bond. We bonded early and definitely have a strong bond."
Said Smith: "Nakobe thinks he's more hands-on, but I'm more hands-on by far. We talk about our classes a lot, because there are not many of us who are doing this."
Smith cites the NFL as his primary goal, but he already is envisioning a life after football.
"After the NFL, I want to open up my own engineering firm and help build roads and buildings," Smith said. "I want to build skyscrapers."