Nolan Smith looks back on early times at Georgia, transition from mentee to mentor

On3 imageby:Palmer Thombs04/23/23

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Draft week is here! With the 2023 NFL Draft set to get underway Thursday night on ABC, ESPN and NFL Network, the time is now for teams to start making up their mind on players. One that they’ve decided through the pre-draft process is pretty dang good: Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith.

Smith, who was the No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2019, stepped foot on Georgia’s campus in Athens with high hopes and big expectations. However, it took him some time to really make the major impact he had imagined. It wasn’t until 2021 on a National Championship winning team and the nation’s top defense that Smith broke out as the best outside linebacker the Bulldogs had to offer.

“My journey started with following after Azeez Ojulari. Azeez is a great player,” Smith said. “He went as a second round pick, and as soon as I got to Georgia, I just followed after him. He did everything the right way, and he was a great leader for our team. That’s one guy that taught me the playbook, taught me everything I know, and when I stepped foot on campus, he embraced me in and helped me become the player that I am today.”

During the 2021 season without Ojulari, Smith finished fifth on the team in tackles with 56 stops. That included nine tackles for loss. Then, after deciding to come back for his senior season in 2022, Smith got off to a great start. In Georgia’s first eight games of the season, he had seven tackles for loss. However, he suffered a season-ending pectoral injury in the eighth contest and missed the rest of the season.

Smith made his return to the field in impressive fashion in Indianapolis – the same place he capped off Georgia’s National Championship win over Alabama with a sack of potential No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young – at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. On the first night of the event, Smith stole the show. He ran a 4.39-second 40 and jumped 41.5 inches, both the best for his position group at the combine. Doing so, Smith became the heaviest player to go sub-4.4 and over 40 inches in the history of the combine.

“I would say that was a P.R. (personal record), and it was just an amazing moment, an amazing run,” Smith said. “I felt like I could give a little bit more juice. I kind of tweaked my hamstring slowing down at the end, and I didn’t run my second one but I really wanted to run a second one. But yeah, that was a P.R. Hopefully I was going to go faster (the second time). That’s what I was hoping for.”

As Smith was on the field of Lucas-Oil Stadium running, his former Georgia teammates were in the locker room of their facility in Athens watching. Videos circulated from within those walls showing the players’ excitement for Smith, one of their team’s captains the year before. To Smith, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. Instead, it was just another day in the life of the Georgia Football culture built on connection. Whether it was him with Ojulari when he was young, or him with the players that were to come after him, Smith saw playing at Georgia as an opportunity to grow with everybody around him.

“It’s amazing seeing those guys cheer for me. It just shows the connection that we have at Georgia and the connection in our locker room,” Smith said. “Those guys are always rooting for each other, and they’ll always be my friends. We’ll always have those moments we had in the locker room. That’s my guy Marvin Jones recording. He’s going to be a great outside linebacker at Georgia, and he was the young guy I took under my wing my senior year. I can’t wait for those guys to get their opportunity to show out again because I’m going to be rooting for those Dawgs.”

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