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Happy with Bulldogs, UGA LB Roquan Smith will play on UCLA’s turf after all

Happy with Bulldogs, UGA LB Roquan Smith will play on UCLA’s turf after all

Happy with Bulldogs, UGA LB Roquan Smith will play on UCLA’s turf after all

Happy with Bulldogs, UGA LB Roquan Smith will play on UCLA’s turf after all

Roquan Smith-Georgia-Bulldogs-All-SEC

ATHENS – I tried to get in touch with Jeff Ulbrich on Monday. You football connoisseurs out there might know who he is, and certainly the most fervent of Atlanta Falcons’ fans do. But I doubt if he’s readily recognizable to fans of the Georgia Bulldogs.

He probably should be.

Ulbrich is the main reason that Roquan Smith is playing linebacker for the SEC champion Bulldogs. And in case you haven’t heard, that has been a very good thing for Georgia.

Smith was announced on Sunday as the winner of the Butkus Award, which goes annually to the top linebacker in the nation. He’s the only Georgia player ever to win that prestigious award. On Monday, Smith also was named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. He also was nominated for the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy — both for national defensive player of the year — and maybe a few others we don’t know about yet.

Regardless, Smith already has put up a pretty good argument for being the greatest linebacker in the history of UGA football. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs won the SEC championship and are heading to the College Football Playoff.

“God had it ordered the whole way,” Larry Harold, Smith’s former coach at Macon County High, said Monday. “He knew Roquan always wanted to be a Georgia Bulldog. He just had to work it out.”

And so it is. But it almost wasn’t.

And that’s where Ulbrich comes in. Ulbrich is not the only reason Smith is at Georgia — which we will get more into later — but he’s a big one. Currently, Ulbrich is the linebackers coach for the Falcons, but on Feb. 3, 2015, he coached linebackers for the UCLA Bruins. As such, he was the primary recruiter of one Roquan Daevon Smith.

And Ulbrich had done one heck of a job recruiting Smith. He convinced Smith, then a UGA “lean,” that he needed to take his final official visit to UCLA the weekend before National Signing Day. And Ulbrich made sure that Smith used every minute of that visit. In fact, the 4-star prospect actually didn’t make it back to his tiny hometown of Montezuma, Ga., until Monday morning.

By then, Smith had silently committed to UCLA and it was the NCAA’s quiet period in recruiting. Smith intended to surprise everybody with his big Bruins’ decision at his nationally televised signing ceremony the following Wednesday. Harold was the only man in all of Macon County who knew that.

Smith spent the night before his signing ceremony with Harold and his family. Harold said he could already sense some anxiety and confusion from his star player as soon as they woke up that morning. It got worse by the time they got to the school.

“When we went into the gym, everybody in Montezuma was there, and they were all wearing red and black,” Harold said, laughing at it now. “So he was freaking out.”

Located almost dead center in the state, Montezuma and Macon County is a UGA stronghold. Harold said it hadn’t dawned on Smith until then how much everybody else wanted him to become a Bulldog.

Turns out, the fun was just getting started.

As Smith was busy telling the whole town and ESPNU’s live national television audience about his plans to play ball for the Bruins, Georgia’s coaches were busy blowing up Harold’s phone. Tight ends coach John Lilly was the Bulldogs’ primary recruiter on Smith, so the majority of messages were from him. But Harold was also getting messages from then-coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. They were all essentially saying the same thing.

“Please don’t let Roquan sign any paperwork until y’all have a chance to hear from us.”

The Georgia coaches didn’t realize that Harold was already a step ahead of them. He’d discussed that option with Smith before they took the stage.

“I told him right then, ‘I can tell how nervous you are about the situation, so I’m not going to turn these papers in until you tell me you’re 100 percent sure. I don’t care what you say on ESPN,’” said Harold, now the coach and athletic director at Central Macon. “He was so relieved when I said that, because UCLA had been on us all morning to go ahead and fax them the paperwork.”

They never did.

As is fairly well known by now, Smith never sent in any paperwork to Georgia, either. He became one of the first — and one of still only a few major college prospects — to not sign a national letter of intent with anybody. But soon after his ceremony, Smith started thinking he wanted to become a member of the Bulldogs.

According to Harold, that decision was solidified when they got the news from Lilly that Ulbrich actually wasn’t even going to be at UCLA anymore. Ulbrich had already agreed to a deal to come to Atlanta to join Mike Smith’s staff.

“Coach Lilly said, ‘Does he know Jeff Ulbrich is not going to be there when he gets there?’ ” Harold recounted. “When we found out that was true, that pretty much did it.

“Roquan said, ‘Coach, I’m so glad you didn’t send those papers in.’ ”

You can bet Georgia fans are, too. It’s hard to imagine it working out much better for the Bulldogs.

Smith has been good throughout his career, but he has developed into a full-on defensive beast this season. Now a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior, Smith leads the Bulldogs with 113 tackles this season and has 215 while starting the last two seasons.

Never was Smith more productive than he was last Saturday in the SEC Championship Game against Auburn. He finished with 13 tackles, a sack and 2 fumble recoveries and earned Most Valuable Player honors for the game.

Harold had a feeling his star student was about ready to go off against the Tigers.

“He always shows up in the big games,” Harold said. “I was texting with him Friday before the game like I do every Friday and I was reminding him of 2014 when we played the region championship against Lamar County. I said, ‘That was a big game, too, and you remember how you did that night?’ ”

Smith had 256 yards and 3 touchdowns on offense and 24 tackles and 7 tackles for a loss on defense.

That’s exactly what Smith relayed after the game. “You try to never make the moment too big or anything like that.”

The moments keep getting bigger for Smith and the Bulldogs. The next challenge for them is No. 2 Oklahoma and its Heisman Trophy-frontrunner quarterback Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl. The winner comes to Atlanta to play for the national championship.

Harold will be there if Smith is. And he expects him to be.

“Oklahoma likes to throw that ball, but I don’t think they’ve seen a defense like they’re going to see out there,” he said. “I know they haven’t played [a] linebacker that can cover like Roquan.”

So, as it turns out, Smith will finally play a game on UCLA’s home field. Considering how it started, it’s only fitting that he would do so wearing a Georgia Bulldogs uniform.

The post Happy with Bulldogs, UGA LB Roquan Smith will play on UCLA’s turf after all appeared first on DawgNation.

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Georgia Sports News

  • Anibal Sanchez allowed seven hits, three runs and one walk with four strikeouts in five innings of Friday’s 11-3 loss against the Tigers. It got worse after that. Braves pitcher Matt Wisler was rocked for six hits and seven runs without recording an out in the seventh inning. Never miss a minute of what’s happening with the Braves. Subscribe to myAJC.com
  • ATHENS – All indications are Nick Saban is going to stick around Alabama a while. Based on his contract, that looks to be at least until 2024 at Alabama. We can joke about other deals he may have made to age as well as he has. The fact is, the Crimson Tide’s coach looks great and says he feels great at 66. There is no evidence of him slowing down anytime soon. We know Georgia’s Kirby Smart is going to be around a good, long while, too. He’s 42 and expected to receive a raise and contract extension in the coming weeks and months. My point here – this could get really fun before it’s all over. It’s not like Georgia needs any new rivals. Lord knows the program probably sports more intense rivalries than any other single team in America. If you ever want to initiate a good debate around the water the cooler or at your local watering hole, ask a group of people whom they believe is the Bulldogs’ biggest rival. Chances are you’ll hear Florida or Georgia Tech out of most folks. But as was well-illustrated this past season, Georgia’s rivalry with Auburn is pretty intense as well. It is, after all, the oldest one in the Deep South. Only a pair of world wars have kept the schools from playing each other every year since 1892. And after the split in 2017 – with the Bulldogs winning the more important one in the SEC Championship Game – only two games separate them on that extensive ledger, with Georgia holding a 58-56-8 advantage. Georgia and Tennessee used to hardly ever play. But they’ve met every year since conference expansion in 1992. And that has been a wild one of unusual streaks on both sides. Most Volunteers fans probably would tell you Bama is their main rival, but I’m not sure that’s truly the case with the way that series has gone of late. The Crimson Tide have won “The Third Saturday in October” contest 11 times in a row and 12 of the last 13. Meanwhile, Jeremy Pruitt has been installed as Tennessee’s coach, and if you look at his coaching staff, it has a decidedly Georgia flavor to it. Thirty percent of his full-time assistants were with him when he was defensive coordinator at UGA: offensive line coach Will Friend, defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer. Then I found out the other day that John Lilly – former tight ends coach at Georgia and, at different times, interim offensive coordinator, special teams coordinator and recruiting coordinator with the Bulldogs – has joined Pruitt’s staff as an offensive analyst. Pruitt is definitely going to have some inside intel on UGA, and it would behoove him to change the direction of that series, which has seen the Bulldogs win six of the last eight. And while it likely never will be the case for Georgia, don’t underestimate what the annual series with South Carolina means to the Gamecocks. I have a ton of family members who live in South Carolina and are alums of that school. While Clemson always will carry the torch as their greatest rival, the Georgia game is huge to them every year, especially when it’s in that SEC opener slot, as it is this season. They’re under the direction of Will Muschamp, a UGA alum and one of Smart’s close friends. We all know how competitive close friends can be. Florida is Florida. Just ask DawgNation’s Brandon Adams – the consummate Georgia fan – where that rivalry ranks for him. That’s another rivalry that has swung wildly one way or another over the years. Smart is 1-1 in it, but the Gators just brought in Dan Mullen as coach. He knows the lay of the land down there and, contrary to the last few coaches in Gainesville, knows how to find a good quarterback and what to do with one once he gets there. And, as the old Georgia saying about Tech goes, if you don’t know how important that game is to the fan base, lose it and you’ll find out. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, that doesn’t happen as often as it once did. But if Georgia’s program continues to trend the way many believe it will, the Bulldogs could have a budding rivalry with Alabama in the works. We all know what happened in the National Championship Game in January, and they’re already prohibitive favorites to meet in the 2018 SEC Championship Game. Based on recent recruiting rankings, that’s a matchup that could up to be a regular one over the next several years. There is the potential for Georgia-Alabama to go the way Florida-Alabama did in the 1990s. Did you realize they met nine times during that decade? The Gators won six of them. Lane Kiffin, the former Alabama offensive coordinator and Tennessee head coach, talked about Georgia and Alabama in an interview with ESPN’s Off The Bench Thursday. He said he expects Saban to continue to coach Alabama for a long time, but he said Smart’s presence at Georgia could have an impact on the Crimson Tide being able to sustain the level of success it has had to date. “That’s hard to do when you’ve got someone who’s been with you for 10 years and knows every single thing you do and every single reason why you’re successful,” said Kiffin, who’s now coach at Florida International, in the interview. “I went to Alabama for three years and it was already rolling. Kirby was there from Day 1 to see how [Saban] built it. That’s hard. The guy’s been there 10 years and now he goes inside the conference and you’ve got to compete against him.” Of course, Smart’s just one of a number of former assistants to go against Saban. Pruitt and new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher join a long list that includes Muschamp and Jim McElwain in the conference. The difference is Smart has been able to win more of the head-to-head recruiting battles. Georgia and Smart will have to keep that up to have any hope of actually turning Alabama into another rival. It’s anything but at the moment. After the Crimson Tide’s win in the championship game, they lead the series 39-25-4. Kiffin credited Saban’s skillful recruiting for Alabama’s success. “That’s the No. 1 reason he wins,” Kiffin said. “Every Saturday they play, they have better players than the other sideline, and it’s usually not even close. They had better players, by far, even in the national championship.” According to recruiting rankings, Georgia ended up with the better players this year at least. If Smart can make that a trend, the Bulldogs might have a nice, new rivalry in the making. The post Kirby Smart’s presence could make Georgia, Alabama rivals appeared first on DawgNation.
  • Welcome to the Question of the Day, where our writers answer (or try to answer) the best questions submitted by Georgia fans. If you’d like to submit a question, please e-mail us at ugaquestionoftheday@gmail.com. Or you can tweet us at here and here. Look for the Question of the Day every Monday through Friday. How about an update on whether or not Tom Crean is going to retain Jonas Hayes?  I know that Kenny Johnson was Tom Crean’s ace recruiter who left Indiana to go be Rick Pitino’s top recruiter.  Unfortunately, Kenny Johnson was fired after getting caught up in Pitino’s problems. Just curious if Tom Crean has reached out to Kenny Johnson? The right hire is Jonas Hayes. That good news should have already been announced.  Thank you. — Henry Stone OK, so I should put you down in the category of wanting Jonas Hayes to be retained? Seems you feel that way but want to be sure. Nothing is official yet, but things certainly seem to be moving in the direction of Hayes remaining on staff. He has been recruiting alongside Crean this week, and Crean keeps having nice things to say about Hayes, such as this in an interview with AM 960 The Ref on Friday morning: “It’s actually been a little too busy to just sit down and lay everything out, but I’ll say this: I really, really like him. I know how important he is to Georgia and I know how important Georgia is to him. I see the way people respond to him, which is great.” One important point: Hayes is still under contract to UGA through this summer, as are all of Mark Fox’s assistants. So Hayes still working and recruiting doesn’t mean he’s been retained. Phillip Pearson and David Carter, the other two assistants, are also under contract and as far as I know also continue to work, even if it’s just administrative duties. That’s another reason Crean doesn’t need to rush to announce Hayes is being retained. This also allows him to get to know Hayes and make his own evaluation. Evidently he likes what he sees so far. I don’t know if retaining Hayes will be enough to get Ashton Hagans and Elias King, the two one-time 2019 commits, back in the fold, especially Hagans. When he de-committed last month amid the Mark Fox uncertainty, it opened the floodgates for interest from other programs. But Hayes’ prowess as a recruiter certainly would help down the line and would provide an instant bridge between Crean and the Georgia fan base. An underrated asset that Hayes brings to the table: The ability to restrain coaches from getting too heated during games. Hayes excelled at that the past couple of years. Here he is doing it with Mark Fox: (Curtis Compton/AJC) And here is Hayes restraining Kent Davison a couple of years ago: (DawgNation/file photo) As for Kenny Johnson joining Crean, I have trouble seeing that happening, given the uncertainty over the FBI scandal. Matt Bucklin, who has been on Georgia’s staff in an operations capacity the past few years, could be a candidate to stick around. Bucklin is the nephew of Tom Izzo, who is close with Crean. If Crean wants to reach back to his Marquette days and get someone who knows the SEC, he could talk to Darrin Horn, the former South Carolina head coach who has been an assistant for Shaka Smart at Texas the past two years. Horn was an assistant for Crean at Marquette. Another name: Bennie Seltzer was an assistant for Crean at both Marquette and Indiana, but was also born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., and and was the head coach at Samford from 2012-14. So he should know the southeast recruiting territory well. This isn’t football, where you get 10 assistant coaches, and now a bunch of quality-control spots. Those three full-time assistant positions are precious. If I had to guess now, I’d say that if Hayes is retained then the other two spots are likely to go to people closer to Crean’s orbit. Have a question for beat writers Chip Towers and Seth Emerson? E-mail us at ugaquestionoftheday@gmail.com The post Will Jonas Hayes stay on staff with Tom Crean? appeared first on DawgNation.
  • Precious memories linger and flood our soul — even before that final hour comes. Some of the most uplifting and gratifying moments on this complex earth come when we remember the time and place where good things happened and memories were collected generously. Those memories that elevate spirits when we look back. Those are the moments of signature professional accomplishment, the birth of children and grandchildren, a trip that exposes one to the ancient world, a concert showcasing a virtuoso performer, the World Series, the Masters or a Super Bowl. Jesup’s John Donaldson would have enjoyed all that, but he could not get enough of what was at his fingertips: fishing the Altamaha (“Altamahaul” to the locals in Wayne County), Blackbeard Island on the Georgia coast and Christmas Creek at St. Simons. He was a versatile fisherman. I called him Mark Trail. On my wildlife showcase wall are some fish and winged mounts, which I passionately cherish. Each represents a memory that exhilarates and raises my spirits when I recall fishing and hunting with John, the consummate outdoorsman. What I have on display would pale when compared to the ultimate fishermen and hunters, but they are, nonetheless, emotionally fulfilling. I like to recall standing in mountain streams, my ears sensitive to the water’s movement, my eyes connecting with nature’s most splendorous views. I like the loneliness of a duck blind that suddenly becomes an explosion of fury and consternation when a flock of mallards descend within range of my shotgun. I like it when wood ducks require that your aim must penetrate the right opening in the woods for success. My friend John — the former Georgia halfback, coach of Jesup and later Wayne County high schools, assistant coach at Florida and UGA — passed away Tuesday at age 92 in his hometown of Jesup. Even in recent years when John’s health began to fail, I would walk by a marsh hen mount or look up from my computer at a spottail bass that once was a 35-pound collector of smaller fish and thought of him. I remember our football conversations. John played the game well; he succeeded Charley Trippi in the backfield at Georgia and later coached several of his teams to championships. He loved the running game. He could design a quick-hitting play that, accompanied with crisp blocking, would allow for a patented first down or a touchdown. He was a hit the hole with alacrity and verve, a knockout-punch kind of guy. Even with his predilection for the running game — his love for running the football and fishing for a 5-pound pass endeared him to his one-time boss, Vince Dooley — he had affection for the passing game. John taught passing principles to Steve Spurrier when he coached Spurrier as a freshman at Florida. John was not above matching the chicanery of fellow coaches, such as Wright Bazemore of Valdosta High School. While he espoused lasting respect to Bazemore, he took great pride in beating Bazemore at his own game. Before the center-keep was outlawed, Bazemore used it to perfection to win big games. The center snaps the ball, but the quarterback does not take the snap but instead goes through a series of fakes as if he is handing the ball off. After a couple of seconds as the defense is moving past the line of scrimmage, the center, usually a big man with superior speed for a lineman, sprints downfield through an unaware defense that is caught totally off guard, with the play often resulting in a touchdown.  What made the play work more often than not was propitious play calling. John found the sideline chess matches thrilling. For years, I heard John  recount how that play worked to defeat Valdosta a couple of times, recalling every detail as it unfolded in his memory banks — still savoring the moment after several decades had elapsed. After the game, he signaled for the band to parade around the field, blaring out victoriously in song “The Old Gray Mare.” Jesup was awash in celebratory retribution for any past failures to the Wildcats. I gloried in every fishing outing with John, especially at Shellman Bluff, motoring past the ballast that the celebrated pirate, Blackbeard, had dumped. The contrast was real: Blackbeard a dishonorable man with nothing in common with my principled friend. I can see John, a right-hander, casting with his left hand after making himself ambidextrous for more casting efficiency. John was good man who lived a good life. Neither alcohol nor tobacco touched his lips in his 92 years on earth. He owed his longevity, in part, to medical science — open heart surgery twice with pig valve replacements. He was about fair play and tending to your own knitting. He loved to breathe the salt air and commune with nature. After one prosperous outing near Sapelo Island, he enjoyed a serendipitous experience that I stewarded into print — my epitaph for my treasured outdoor friend. “Let’s cast a couple of times along the beach here,” John said as we were heading home. “Water’s clearing up, you never know.” As soon as he eagerly watched his line spin off his reel, he hooked something too big and strong for his lightweight equipment. A 25-pound spot tail bass had taken his bait. Only finesse would bring the quarry home. Only skill would succeed in boating such a fish. Power and force would lose this battle. Tiring out his prey, with the velvet touch, gained him the catch of the year. Today, my heart is heavy, but the sadness is ameliorated by an appreciation for John’s sportsmanship and masterly skills. Fishing with John Donaldson was like watching Monet paint. The post Remembering former Georgia player, coach ‘Jesup’ John Donaldson appeared first on DawgNation.
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