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Kirby Smart, Nolan Smith, and a Decision to Finish the Drill.

An injury saw Nolan Smith's role go from player to coach during this season. According to Kirby Smart, Smith faced a tough decision following his injury.

The 2019 recruiting class for Georgia may be one of the most historic classes in college football history. The class finished second in 247Sports rankings, but the sheer amount of production from its players has been otherworldly.

You had a future No. 1 overall pick in Travon Walker, first round Draft picks in Lewis Cine and Jermaine Johnson, All-American linebacker Nakobe Dean, superstar wide receiver George Pickens, two of Georgia's starting offensive lineman in the 2023 National Championship season: Xavier Truss and Warren McClendon, and a transfer-quarterback from Jones College named Stetson Bennett.

But none of them was more highly-rated than the 6-foot-3 edge rusher out of IMG Academy: Nolan Smith.

Smith, a Savannah-native, was the top prospect in the class, and according to 247, the 20th best prospect ever, with a composite score of .9994. Nolan Smith was the crown jewel of an incredible recruiting effort from Kirby Smart and his staff.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart discussed his relationship with Nolan in a press conference on Tuesday morning.

"Well, my relationship with Nolan is unique because Nolan had a commitment to Georgia that was unlike many others." said Smart.

"He was highly touted, considered one of the best players in the country, debatable always, but he committed to Georgia at an early stage in his career and he stayed committed. Nolan is one of those rare guys that saw the value in being from Georgia, committing to Georgia, never wavering from Georgia, and leading the class. It reminds me of Richard LeCounte where he said, you know what, I'm coming; that's where I'm going and I'm going to affect others."

After enrolling early in January, Smith played in all 14 games for Georgia in 2019, earning Co-Defensive New Comer of the Year. 

Over the next couple of seasons, Nolan Smith became a staple of Georgia's defense at outside linebacker, battling for playing time with future pros, but consistently producing on the field. His moment of transcendence, when he stopped being another guy and became a star, came against Florida in 2021. Georgia's offense was bogged down in Jacksonville, and Smith chose the perfect moment to have a career game.

From Georgia Athletics: "added three career firsts vs. the Gators: forced fumble, fumble recovery and interception, all in a 39-second span of the second quarter."

Then, in the National Championship against Alabama, Nolan Smith capped off the win by sacking Alabama quarterback Bryce Young on the final play, igniting a celebration that was 40 years in the making for the Georgia faithful.

It wasn't just his play on the field that made him a staple, but his personality. His smile is about as wide as you'll see and lights up any room or stadium he's in. He's always been a motivator, and in the offseason leading up to the 2022 campaign, with 15 former Bulldogs selected in the NFL Draft, Smith became the leader of the team, along with Stetson Bennett.

"The guy – physical toughness. You can ask these guys, he never shuts up in the locker room. He's like a motor mouth. But people embrace and enjoy him." said Smart.

Through seven games, Nolan Smith was having a career year. He had 7 tackles for a loss, including 3 sacks, and led the team in quarterback pressures. Then, on centerstage in Jacksonville once again, Smith went down with an injury.

Though it was initially hoped that he would be able to return later in the season, the eventual diagnosis of a torn pectoral muscle ended his senior season.

With the devastating news coming as he was seeing his NFL Draft stock soar, Nolan Smith had a decision to make: Go rehab and get ready for the Draft or stay and be a part of the team while doing the rehab in-house.

Smith elected to remain with the team, becoming a de facto coach for the Bulldogs, constantly hyping the team on the sidelines. But apparently that wasn't his initial decision. Kirby Smart shared a story we hadn't heard before, following Georgia's National Championship win over TCU, about Nolan's decision to stay with the team.

"Of our captains, he was the leading vote-getter. It tells you that everybody respected him. And he was not playing. And he was going to check out and go train and go work out. I said, 'Nolan, it will be the greatest mistake of your life if you leave right now and don't finish this because people will remember how you finished. Whether we win or lose is irrelevant. But the rest of your life you will be remembered, were you a captain, were you there for everybody? Did you stand by this team? Did you impact them in a way without being on the field? Because NFL teams will value someone who can impact their team when they're not playing.'"

Nolan Smith did impact this team. Whether it was through coaching up the younger players, or hyping up his team and the fans with one arm waving while the other was bound by a sling. His positivity was one of the factors in Georgia's come-from-behind win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff Semifinals, according to Kirby Smart.

"I told him, the Ohio State win, about 20 percent of that win goes to him because he was over on that sideline never doubting, and just kept preaching. It's little things like that that make a difference in a team."

More likely than not, Nolan Smith will be a first round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, but the memories of him motivating his team, and eventually leading them out as a captain in the National Championship, are what will stick with Georgia fans. If Kirby Smart is right, and what people remember is how you finish, Nolan Smith's legacy in Athens is secured. 

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