This series will feature the top NFL Draft prospects with insight from the beat reporters that covered them in college. This article is just a preview of the full interview which can be heard on the Deep Slant podcast.
Name: Nolan Smith
Height/Weight: 6-2, 238
Hometown: Savannah, Georgia
Sidhu: Let's start off with Nolan Smith's Combine performance because it was historic and I think that was one of the biggest news stories coming out of the Combine: 4.39 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 41.5-inch vertical jump. He was the heaviest player to have a vertical over 40 and a 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds. So what can teams learn about Smith from his performance and how does that translate to the tape?
Shelton: What stands out to me this year especially on his tape, specifically before his pec injury against Florida, he had played eight games up to that point and he had the best season he has had as a four-year guy in Athens. He had 18 total tackles at the time, had a team high 16 QB hurries, 3.0 sacks before the injury, all which led the team. I think that's a really strong showing from him. He had to have this season to really prove that stock and he showed up and I think he played well in the biggest stage for him at the most important time for his young career.
Very strong for the undersized part of this, he's 6-2,not exactly the length you want to see, especially in the NFL, but I think his strength enabled him to take on these bigger offensive tackles, which he was doing in the SEC on a weekly basis. They didn't push him around, very good leverage for him at that size. And then his speed, of course, I mean, that's what you want to see out of a pass rusher, especially in NFL defenses where they're going to send that edge more often. Because when you look at these Georgia edge defenders, we talked about it last year with Travon Walker. He actually earned that No. 1 overall pick, even though his sack numbers were not there. This Georgia team is able to get pressure percentages higher than most teams in college football without having to blitz. They ask their edge defenders to primarily close that edge, force that quarterback to make a decision in the pocket or move out and that's where we can catch up to them. I think that's just Georgia using the speed of their defense. But that pass rush did improve. Smith was about he was on pace for his best season in Athens and I think he'll thrive in NFL system with that ability that we saw on display in the Combine.
Sidhu: In four seasons 84 pressures, 20 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks, not really eye-popping stats, but that lack of superstar production, can you attribute it to the fact that he is playing along all these other Georgia superstars just show his high ceiling for NFL teams or is it a concern?
Shelton: I don't think it is. And I think that was proven last year with Travon taken, to be honest with you. He can even put on some pounds. If he's running a 4.39 at 238, if he wants to put on some more, I don't think that's going to really affect his speed at all. But I think that playing along that defensive line does take away from that for Georgia, but they're used to that system. It's been that way since Kirby Smart came in. They rotate a lot. They ask their edge defenders, like I said, not to be that pass rusher. They focused on the pressure inside and send linebackers there, but they want this edge to be shut off and closed in. In the NFL, the run game is so much more important than college. I think that's a big aspect that you want because he's so good against the run.
Sidhu: Smith actually drew some comparisons to the Eagles Pro Bowl linebacker Hassan Reddick, maybe because of the size and the performance that he had at the Combine. So tell me a little bit about him off the field. You know, what's his personality like?
Shelton: Just high motor. He's always going, he's always talking. He's always that mouth in the locker room to get guys up, get guys going. I think Kirby Smart and just his coaching style really meshed well with Nolan. And that's why he picked Georgia, former No. 1 overall prospect and he comes into a team with a lot of superstars, and he made his voice known to those guys and they looked up to him. Jordan Davis and Travon Walker and those guys, they looked up to Nolan Smith. He came this year as a senior and really helped. It was a young defense. I mean, we lost so many starters last year in the NFL Draft and came back strong. There's a lot of young guys that he had to help. And I think that's one of the reasons that Kirby Smart and that staff kept him at practices and at games even when he was rehabbing that pectoral injury to help get these guys going and in the right mindset and to help any way he could. And he is that type of guy. I've never seen him not be, always have really, really good examples of him helping teammates and teammates loving him and looking up to him. So I can't speak to anything else than that.
Sidhu: What's your favorite memory, either on the field or off the field, in your time covering Nolan Smith?
Shelton: There's so many places to go there in four years in Athens. But I think after this season when he had that pectoral injury, because you look at a guy who was wanting to go to the NFL, former No. 1 overall recruit, he comes in and he knows he has to prove some things this season. He had a great season up to that game versus Florida and he has that injury. So, put yourself in that mindset. What are you going to do? You can rehab your pectoral and kind of get down on that and just hope things go your way as you rehab. Or you can be in the facility, be with the team in their meetings, be at the games, be on the sidelines, be at practices and help coach these young guys to help win a championship. He's always about winning and that's what comes across when he speaks. I think that's one of my favorite moments. I'm going look back when I think about Nolan when I see him playing on Sundays and know that that's a good guy who cares about his teammates first and winning above the rest. So, I think that's one of the biggest things that I got to see, even through a long career in Athens.