It was all bright lights and big city from then on out. The kid from Montezuma was scraping the Georgia mud off his shoes and getting out of that biscuits-and-gravy town 20 minutes from the nearest interstate.
Roquan Smith, one of the top linebacker recruits in the nation, sat at a table on national signing day in 2015. In front of him were signs for UCLA, Michigan and Georgia. A crowd in the Macon County High gym waited. He stood and flashed UCLA gloves. You could all but hear Georgia’s mascot, Uga, growl. Bulldog Nation couldn’t believe one of their own had been lured away.
Only Smith never put ink to paper and the gloves were soon discarded.
Between announcing that he would be a Bruin and actually signing the letter of intent, word leaked out that UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich had accepted a job with the Atlanta Falcons. Smith was coming to Westwood to play for Ulbrich, and the coach’s departure slammed the brakes on the recruiting process.
A week later, Smith chose Georgia.
Sometimes out of chaos comes clarity. It has been three years since Smith sat at that table. He hasn’t looked back.
Smith, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior, took home the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. He is a consensus All-American and a projected first-round pick in the next NFL draft, should he opt to leave school early.
Whether those things would have been possible at UCLA is unknown. The Bruins had an 18-20 record the last three seasons. Smith’s first game at the Rose Bowl will be for No. 3 Georgia against No. 2 Oklahoma on Monday, with a berth in the national championship game on the line.
“I haven’t thought about it like that, like, ‘Wow, I could have been out here every day,’ ” Smith said. “I haven’t thought about anything like that. What I think about now is the years I’ve had at Georgia. I love Georgia and having the opportunity today in this game.”
His was an epiphany that required a chain reaction that started on one coast and ended near another.
“I would just say it was God,” Smith said.
Divine intervention or not, the Bulldogs clearly benefited.
Smith developed into the face of the nations’ fourth-ranked defense. He was selected the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the year after leading Georgia in tackles (112) and sacks (5½). To bookend that, he was selected the most valuable player of the SEC championship game after matching his career high with 13 tackles and recovering two fumbles.
Oklahoma players have identified Smith as the guy to watch Monday.
“Usually when watching film you see linebackers that are either physical or they’re really fast,” Oklahoma fullback Dimitri Flowers said. “He’s a unique mix of both. That’s what makes him a special player. He covers a lot of ground.”
Smith has always done that, at least in his mind. He dreamed big while growing up in that small town about an hour from the relative metropolis of Macon, Ga.
In elementary school, Smith became fascinated with geography. He would bury himself in a social studies book, pouring over the maps.
“I’d look at places and be like, ‘I want to go there, I want to go there,’ ” Smith said.
He has traveled to Central America and South America, and has hopes of getting to Europe and Africa.
“If you ask him, he’ll give you the geographical facts about anywhere,” Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said.
Even Montezuma, a place that would be nearly impossible to find on a map.
“You have to zoom in a little bit,” Smith said. “I guess I’m a small-town boy.”
No one of note has come from Montezuma. The town, Smith said, has three stop lights. In an area that is rich in Civil War history, the most notable monuments in the Montezuma cemetery are the Lewis brothers. Elijah Lewis died from appendicitis. Robert Lewis saved an 8-year boy from drowning and was accidentally shot the next day.
Their father commissioned statues of his sons that stand today.
“There isn’t much to do there,” Smith said.
No one usually comes to Montezuma. Smith provided a reason.
As a kid, basketball dominated his life. Macon County High coach Larry Harold recognized the potential in Smith’s ability and convinced him to transition to football.
By the time he was a senior, Smith was one of the top linebackers in the nation. Visitors pitching college football glory rolled into town.
Coaches from Texas A&M, Georgia and MIchigan ’all dropped by the final week home visits were allowed. They were all playing catch up.
Ulbrich was one of the first recruiters to reach out to Smith.
Harold told the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer that “Jeff Ulbrich said when he saw the highlight tape, he threw his coffee out of the window.”
Around signing day, rumors of Ulbrich leaving first started leaking out. Jim Mora, then UCLA’s coach, at first denied it. A little later, he said that Ulbrich had yet to decide whether to stay or leave.
Ulbrich at first said he had declined the Falcons job, Smith said, and tried to get him to sign the letter of intent. Smith refused, and later said that he felt misled by UCLA.
But being in Los Angeles this week, mere miles from Westwood, hasn’t dredged up bad memories for Smith.
“It doesn’t feel weird at all,” Smith said. “It was something that was a while ago. I don’t really think about it from that aspect. I just think about playing for Georgia.”
Tracy Rocker, then Georgia’s defensive line coach, called Smith “UCLA” during practice.
“Every practice, he would call him that,” Ledbetter said. “It just made Roquan work even harder.”
It didn’t take long befor the teasing gave way to admiration. Smith became a starter as a junior and led the team with 95 tackles.
As a preview to this season, Smith had 13 tackles in the season finale against Georgia Tech and 13 against Texas Christian in the Liberty Bowl.
“The most impressive thing is his speed,” Georgia running back Nick Chubb said. “He can run with running backs.”
Others see Smith’s determination.
“Once he’s on the field and making plays, running around, you can see he’s something special,” Georgia linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “He’s just one of those players.”
One of those Georgia players.
“I can’t envision being anywhere else,” Smith said.