By Sarah Bahr | @smbahr14
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES — He’s as tall as three-and-a-half Rose Bowl trophies.
He weighs as much as a giant panda.
He can cover 80 yards in the time it takes to view a single snap.
He’s missed fewer tackles this season than the margin of error in some Gallup polls.
And on New Year’s Day, in the Rose Bowl presented by Northwestern Mutual, Georgia’s Butkus Award-winning linebacker, Roquan Smith, will be barreling toward Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Smith, one of the toughest matchups in the country, is the first Bulldog to take home the award for the nation’s top collegiate linebacker. For the second time, the Heisman Trophy winner will square off against the Butkus Award winner in a bowl game. In the 1994 Orange Bowl, Florida State quarterback Charlie Ward, the Heisman winner, led the Seminoles to a national championship by beating Nebraska and linebacker Trev Alberts, the Butkus winner.
Smith enters the Rose Bowl with only six missed tackles, just 5.3 percent of his season total of 113 takedowns, 44 more than any other Georgia defender. The Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year recorded 13 tackles, one sack, and two fumble recoveries in Georgia’s SEC Championship win over then-No. 2 Auburn, good for a most valuable player award and a celebratory confetti cascade as his face flashed across the big screen at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Smith is eager to challenge the player he’s called “the best college football player in America.”
But he has been every bit as valuable to the Bulldogs this season as Mayfield has been central to the Sooners.
Even the opposition is impressed.
“Usually you see either linebackers that are really physical or really fast,” Oklahoma fullback Dimitri Flowers said. “But he’s a very unique mix of both, and I think that’s what makes him a special player.”
Smith leads Georgia in sacks (5.5), tackles for loss (10.5) and quarterback hurries (17), and the 6-foot-1, 225-pound linebacker is speedy enough to keep pace with receivers. He’s a double whammy, able to smother receivers and shed blocks to deliver big hits in the backfield.
And the scary part?
He’s only 20 years old.
But he’s the undisputed leader of the No. 4-ranked defense in college football, a punishing unit that has allowed 270.9 yards per game, an average of 4.45 per play. Georgia gave up fewer than 15 first downs per game this season, good for ninth in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“Any time you have a defense that’s held all opponents except for two to under 300 yards of offense, that’s pretty exceptional,” Oklahoma co-offensive coordinator Cale Gundy said.
The Georgia defense is especially strong against the pass, which doesn’t bode well for Oklahoma’s cannon-armed quarterback. The Bulldogs allowed an average of only 158.3 yards per game through the air this season. Mayfield has racked up more than that in a single quarter.
But if Smith has anything to say about it, Mayfield will spend more time Monday flat on his back than aiming for the end zone.
Smith has been a highly-sought-after prospect since his days as a four-star recruit at tiny Macon County High School in Montezuma, Georgia, the largest town in the county at just shy of 3,500 residents. And if you think that’s pint-sized, Marshallville, the town northeast of Montezuma where he was raised, is so miniscule that, according to Smith, there’s not a single place to eat.
“There ain’t no gathering spot (in Marshallville). Ain’t no place to eat up there,” he told the Macon Telegraph in 2015. “Besides the Vegetable Basket on Saturdays.”
Smith was once committed to UCLA, pledging his loyalty in a televised ceremony on National Signing Day. But he did not sign a Letter of Intent and changed his mind when Bruins defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich was jumping ship for the Atlanta Falcons.
Had Smith not flipped to Georgia, he would’ve spent the past three years playing in Rose Bowl Stadium. But he’s not dwelling on the past, he says. What matters now is making Montezuma proud.
He says the tiny town will be turning out to support him on Monday.
“I’ve got friends and family coming,” he said.
If the Bulldogs are to come out on top in Monday’s matchup, Smith and the Georgia linebacking corps will have to put pressure on Mayfield, forcing the long-bomb-launcher outside the protection of the pocket.
But Smith is confident the team can get the job done, and his assurance has rubbed off on his teammates.
“We prepared for this,” Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “We can stop mobile quarterbacks.”
He paused, then went a step further.
“We can stop anything.”