Georgia has an outstanding defensive line. The Bulldogs are thriving in the increasingly spread offensive-driven college game in part because they are deploying trench warriors on both sides of the ball who can control the point of attack and in part because of some great athletes they have playing behind those big boys. The offense has Nick Chubb rolling this season, especially now that Jake Fromm is getting settled in at QB, while the defense has Roquan Smith.

Inside linebacker is a very demanding position in today’s game, regularly tasked with running from sideline to sideline against the run and pass but still also regularly asked to take on lead blocks and plug holes between the tackles. The combination of lateral quickness and power on the physical end is rare enough without also factoring in the mental processing speed required to find and execute assignments against modern tempo and option tactics.

Georgia has simplified this in some ways with their defensive front, but then Roquan Smith has taken it from their with a brilliant performance at inside-backer this season.

Running down a dream

Georgia has two main defensive fronts they employ on standard downs, a 3-4 Under with a 3-technique tackle and then a 4i-technique defensive end and a traditional 3-4 with two 4i-technique defensive ends.

When they’re in the Under they’ll play Smith behind the 3-technique, which tends to keep him pretty well covered up from opposing offensive linemen and free to run to the football.

When you’re talking about a player with this kind of lateral speed it’s a big deal when he’s running free without worrying about beating blocks en route to the ball. Of course there are also times where he has to beat blocks while scraping laterally and it doesn’t really matter.

A major priority for the opposing offensive staff every week is “how do we get a blocker freed up to the second level so that Roquan Smith isn’t just running sideline to sideline swallowing up everything we want to do?”

So far most teams have struggled to find an answer …

On this example the center (No. 74) who’s responsible for blocking Smith can only watch in resignation as No. 3 blows by him to make the stop.

Smith’s contest against Alabama’s spread-option tactics in the seemingly inevitable SEC title game matchup could be one for the ages. Right now he’s offering Kirby Smart the same kind of play he was accustomed to getting from players like Reggie Ragland or Reuben Foster back at Alabama.

Against the pass

Even the shiftier, stocky inside-backers around the country can get into trouble these days when teams throw the ball from spread sets that ask them to cover in space. The spread hasn’t fully taken hold across the SEC, but you’ll still see some teams that will use spacing to force linebackers to cover more distance, to put them into run/pass conflict, or to make them drop and cover routes.

Notre Dame tried to put Smith in conflict to generate easy passes for its offense, including using this popular new version of zone read that gives the QB a flat pass if the DE stays home to stop the run:

Smith is already scraping wide to handle the QB keeper but he finds the receiver and stuffs the short pass all too easily. On normal dropback passes Smith is very comfortable getting good depth in his drops and then closing on underneath throws as though they were runs.

Finally, Smith is also very effective as a blitzer. He only has one sack, but he’s demonstrated great timing on blitzes and it’s only a matter of time before more he tallies more sacks executing inside blitzes like this one:

That kind of timing will absolutely wreck even the best offensive lines. Smith ends up crashing into the only blocker in position to pick this up and forcing the ball inside to his teammate and fellow blitzer.

Georgia’s defense is designed to disrupt blocking schemes up front and channel the ball to their linebacker corps, and they have a very good one. Davin Bellamy works the edge, Lorenzo Carter gets a lot of the pressures, and Roquan Smith is usually found running free to the ball wherever it ends up.