Georgia Bulldogs beaming about seniors like Christopher Smith

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS -- When Christopher Smith was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week on Tuesday, the least surprised person in Georgia was Winston Gordon.

Gordon was Smith’s high school coach at Hapeville Charter Academy, and he’s been preaching that it’s just a matter of time for Smith since he showed up at his school in 2016.

“Chris Smith is a phenomenal person, man; let’s get past the athlete part of it,” Gordon said Tuesday morning. “Chris Smith was a leader in the classroom here, graduated in the top 25 percent of his class, made well over a 1,000 on his SAT. So first off you have to applaud his parents because they did a great job of raising him and his brother T.J.”

Chris Smith’s younger brother T.J Smith also is a defensive back and also had an interception Saturday. A redshirt freshman at Kansas State, his interception and 39-yard return was the final dagger in a 24-7 win over Stanford.

But that paled in comparison with what Smith did in Georgia’s 10-3 win over then-No. 3 Clemson in Charlotte that day. Late in the second quarter, Smith stepped in front of a D.J. Uiagalelei pass for Justyn Ross and returned it 74 yards for the first and only touchdown in what will go down as one of the top matchups in college football this season.

Smith also had three tackles in the game and played a major role in a Georgia defensive effort that limited the Tigers to 186 yards of total offense, two yards rushing and seven sacks. Clemson had gained 400 or more yards in 12 consecutive games before Saturday.

Georgia nose guard Jordan Davis also was named SEC defensive lineman of the week after logging three tackles, two tackles for loss, a quarterback sack and a hurry in the lowest-scoring game of the Dabo Swinney era at Clemson.

What made the defensive effort in that game particularly pleasing for the Bulldogs was they did it with three senior defensive backs who had not played prominent on-field roles on the team until this season.

Smith is somewhat of an exception in that regard. He was pressed into service last season after Richard LeCounte almost was killed in a midseason motorcycle accident and was lost for the season. Smith started the last five games of the season and played extremely well, with 26 tackles and four quarterback pressures.

But Saturday represented his first career interception and touchdown. That probably doesn’t happen if Smith is not a wily senior who knew exactly what was going to be coming on a third-and-4 play at the Georgia 30 in a scoreless game with barely three minutes to go in the first half.

Smith knew Uiagalelei would be looking for Ross on an underneath route in that scenario. Smith baited Ross by feigning outside leverage before the snap, then crashed hard inside the hashmarks to beat Ross to the spot when the football was released. Smith never broke stride after snatching away the pass, and he outran the angled pursuit of Uiagelelei down the Clemson sideline.

“That was the whole point of the play,” Smith said when asked he was baiting the quarterback to make that throw. “We ran that play a thousand times during the fall and spring and summer. We’d been working on a disguise, and (Latavious) Brini did a great job of holding inside and showing blitz. I showed outside and jumped inside, and it was the perfect combination. He threw it right to me.”

Georgia was able to execute such a play only because of the veteran experience it has in its secondary. The Bulldogs are paper thin in the back end of its defense this season. But with the exception of junior safety Lewis Cine, they’re an all-senior group.

If you want to see Georgia coach Kirby Smart get fired up, ask him how he feels about seniors such as Smith, the nickel back Brini and cornerback Ameer Speed sticking with the Bulldogs and awaiting their shot to play rather than transferring.

Smart was asked about that at Georgia’s media day Monday. Here’s what he said:

“I’d love for y’all to promote that message and tell every young player on our team, ‘Look at these guys, look what they’ve done.’ But it is a what-can-you-do-for-me-now society. What can you do for me right now? Everybody is, like, ‘What can you do for me now?’ We are trying to sell a team sport and a team game, and there is no greater example than Chris Smith running down the field with the ball and Brini right beside him. Both didn’t play great. They played good; they didn’t play great. But they played like they played because they got the experience last year. You know Brini played in the Cincinnati game (the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl), so he had more confidence because of it. Chris Smith played (LeCounte’s) first week out, and he had more confidence because of it. They also have confidence because they each have done those things a certain number of times.

“To everybody’s loving of rankings and loving of recruiting out there, I get it, I understand it. I love recruiting, too. But you can’t just walk in here and be immediately perfect and do everything right. You have to gain experience. Those guys have done that. They have been behind some good football players and they did wait their turn, fight and battle. They had been contributors on special teams. That really is the model to me, but in the world we live in now it is, ‘Show me playing time or show me the door.’ We try to recruit to kids that want to be at Georgia for a long time because it gives you a chance to be successful when they are older.”

Yes, Smart is a more than a little passionate when it comes to this subject. The Bulldogs are well-accustomed to and accepting of underclassmen turning pro to take advantage of high draft grades, such as cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes did after last season. But he gets a little annoyed with the transfer trend that has been ushered in during the age of the NCAA’s transfer portal.

Georgia has lost defensive backs Tyrique Stevenson (Miami), Major Burns (LSU), Otis Reese (Ole Miss) and Divaad Wilson (Central Florida) to transfers the past couple of seasons.

Fortunately for the Bulldogs, guys like Smith, Speed and Brini opted to stay.

“I believe if you believe in yourself and believe in all the hard work you’re putting in, good things will come to you,” said Brini, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound native of Miami. “I’m a hard worker, and I just believe in myself.”

Same for Smith. Gordon said the senior never brought up to him the possibility of transferring.

“Not one of my kids have had a situation where they went to the transfer portal,” Gordon said proudly. “They have hung in there and fought their situations out. Not one time has Chris Smith mentioned that he wanted to leave. Not one time. He cut off his recruitment once he committed to Georgia, and he’s stuck with it ever since.”

Gordon said the same goes for another one of his players at Georgia. William Poole came out of Hapeville Charter a year before Smith and has played in only 22 games in five years, with one start. Poole traveled to Charlotte but did not play Saturday.

“He’s waiting his turn,” Gordon said. “Those are the type of kids that we breed here.”

Gordon’s program also produced Georgia sophomore receiver Jermaine Burton. But Burton transferred to IMG Academy as a sophomore and moved with family to Calabasas, Calif., as a senior. He started as a freshman flanker for the Bulldogs last season.

But Gordon couldn’t be more proud of Burton than he is of Smith.

“He’s a great, great human being, first; I keep telling people that,” Gordon said. “He never had an inkling to leave the University of Georgia and go anywhere else.”