Today we continue our analysis of Georgia Bulldogs looking to hear their names called in the 2023 NFL draft with a look at a defender who may have less downside then just about any player available.
There are a lot of unenviable tasks one could undertake. Bulletproof vest tester. Kanye West’s press agent. Lion proctologist. But one of the low key examples which can set one up for years of misery and failure is that of playing college football after being labeled “the #1 high school football prospect in America.”
Nolan Smith, to his great credit, was ranked the #1 prospect in the nation in the class of 2019 after transferring from Savannah’s Calvary Day School to IMG Academy. Smith actually committed to the University of Georgia in January 2017, helped recruit many of his future teammates, and stuck to his pledge for nearly two years before signing on the dotted line.
Smith enrolled early, took part in spring practice and immediately became a fixture on the Bulldog defense. He saw action in all 14 games that season, finishing with 18 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 15 QB pressures. It was an enviable stat line for a true freshman, the kind that could easily set one up for a sophomore slump.
Yet despite the exigencies of the Covid-shortened season of 2020 Smith was even more impactful. He tallied 22 tackles and an eye-popping 20 quarterback pressures in only 10 games, and moved into the starting lineup early in the season.
He never really left it. Smith started 22 games during the 2021 and 2022 national title campaigns, only surrendering his spot for injury, including the torn pectoral muscle that sidelined him for much of 2022.
Smith burnished his resume with a freakish combine performance, running a 4.39 forty at 236 pounds and vertical jumping 41.5”.
If there is a knock on Smith, it’s likely that he’s a bit of a “tweener.” At 6’2, 236 he’s not as long or massive as some teams like for an edge rusher or even a classic 3-4 linebacker, and not as athletic in coverage as a 4-3 outside linebacker. But that seems like a criticism you’d make before seeing him play. Nolan is extremely strong for his size, with a solid lower body that allows him to drive and stand his ground against big tackles, and to take on pulling linemen. Smith’s technique and leverage are exceptional, allowing him to maximize his physical gifts.
As a pass rusher, Smith is ruthlessly efficient, taking the shortest path to the quarterback and getting there in part due to a quick first step and a high motor. In fact one can get the impression that his pass rush repertoire is a bit limited because he doesn’t flash it often. But again, his tape is replete with examples of Smith using leverage to just bust straight through 300 pound tackles.
Some teams will not be sure exactly what they want Smith to do, and I think it might take some time to figure it out. But Nolan Smith’s football IQ, work ethic, and proven productiveness make him a pretty sure bet in this draft. While he may not have the over-the-top measurables of Travon Walker, the kind that force teams to draft you higher due to pure upside, Smith is the kind of player who should be available in the middle third of the first round and isn’t going to lose any GM his job. I expect a team that is looking to build a defense for the long run to snag him between picks 8 and 18, and they’re very unlikely to regret it. Until later…