Life after Nolan Smith: Georgia’s outside linebacker legacy seems safe

ATHENS — Never follow a legend. That’s what we’re told in life, whether it’s following a football coach or a Fortune 500 CEO.

The fact of the matter is, someone always must follow, legend or not.

In the case of the Georgia Bulldogs this week, those individuals are Robert Beal and Chaz Chambliss. Odds are Beal, the sixth-year senior, will get the start at “Jack” outside linebacker when the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs play host to No. 1 Tennessee on Saturday at Sanford Stadium (3:30 p.m., CBS). But Chambliss also will have a substantial role in filling in for Georgia’s fallen star.

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Nolan Smith, a senior from Savannah, suffered a torn pectoral muscle in the right side of his chest in the first quarter of Georgia’s 42-20 win over Florida on Saturday. UGA confirmed Tuesday that Smith will undergo surgery Thursday. He will be sidelined for at least four months and possibly longer, depending on the success of the surgery and his response to physical therapy.

The best news about that situation is, barring complications, Smith should be on the sideline during Saturday’s game. His surgery by Dr. Robert Hancock will be handled as an outpatient procedure at Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital. As a result, Smith will be in a support role with his teammates on the sideline against the Volunteers.

The Bulldogs believe that’s a big deal.

“I am hoping to have him at practice Thursday, if they will let him,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Tuesday night after the Bulldogs’ practice. “We want to get him back out there. He does a great job. He is like an extra coach because he is so enthusiastic and getting after it. He brings the energy. We are hoping to get him out there on Thursday.”

Whether Smith is out there Thursday, he certainly will be present Saturday afternoon for the latest monumental matchup at Sanford Stadium. Tennessee was the surprise recipient of the nation’s No. 1 ranking in the first CFP rankings of the season, which were released Tuesday night. Conversely, Georgia, which is the defending national champion and has been ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press and coaches’ polls for the past three weeks, was deemed to be the nation’s third-best team. That’s according to the 13-person selection committee that eventually will determine the four participants in the playoff for a national championship.

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All that will sort itself out in due time. Most notably, there will be an adjustment in the rankings Tuesday when either Tennessee or Georgia suffers its first defeat of the season Saturday.

Without question, the Bulldogs’ odds of coming out with a victory would be better if they had Smith manning the edge of the defense, as he has done so well the past two seasons. That’s not going to be the case. But thanks to Beal, Chambliss and several other players, Smith’s absence will not be as devastating a loss as it could be, and certainly would be at a lot of other schools.

That’s because no program has recruited the outside linebacker position better than Georgia has over the past few years. Smith is one of several former five-star-rated prospects on the roster who signed to play that spot for Georgia.

That starts with Beal.

While he may have been overrated from a recruiting standpoint when he earned a five-star distinction from PrepStar Magazine and a consensus four-star rating as a high school senior in 2017, he remains a very good college football player. Now a sixth-year senior, Beal has been extremely productive the past two seasons.

The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Beal played in all 15 games for Georgia during its national championship run last season, including two starts, one of which came against Michigan in the Orange Bowl. He led the Bulldogs in sacks last season with 6.5 and also had 18 pressures to go with 23 overall tackles. Beal already was alternating quite liberally with Smith or playing opposite him when Georgia set up in two-outside-linebacker packages. Beal has 10 tackles, a half-sack and 10 QB pressures while playing all eight games, with one start, this season. He played 51 snaps against Florida.

Chambliss, a 6-2, 250-pound sophomore who was a four-star prospect, also has been a regular in the rotation this season. After missing three games with a hamstring injury, Chambliss returned to play 30 snaps against the Gators and finished with three tackles, including one for a loss.

The real intrigue lies in where Georgia may turn to from there. The Bulldogs have many options.

Junior Mekhail “M.J.” Sherman is a former five-star prospect whose contributions to date mostly have come on special teams. Marvin Jones – son of the former FSU All-American of the same name – also was a consensus five-star prospect and has been impressive during his time on the field for seven games this season. Jones had to sit out against the Gators because of a bout with the flu, but he has been cleared for Saturday.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs also have former five-star prospects Xavian Sorey and Jalon Walker that they can turn to. Though considered inside linebackers, primarily, both cross-train at outside linebacker and have played there this season. Inside linebacker Smael Mondon – another five-star recruit – also cross-trains outside.

“It is not a problem,” Smart said. “They all sit in the same (meeting) room.”

Such quality depth is what has separated Georgia’s defense the past few seasons. Almost forgotten at this point is the fact that the Bulldogs lost star outside linebacker and former five-star prospect Adam Anderson when he was accused of a felony offense in the middle of last season. It was then that Beal, Sherman and Chambliss had to step up with their contributions.

They did, and the Bulldogs finished the season with what was considered one of the great defenses of this century.

The task of upholding such a legacy falls on the guys still playing. They’re excited about that challenge.

“Just like we preach here, it’s always next man up,” Chambliss said Tuesday night. “We’re just preparing for the game like we would any other week. With our depth in the outside linebacker room, we all practice hard every single week. It’s just next man up for this game and for the season on.”

Said Smart: “Those guys have to play. They practice every day just like Nolan does. They have to have an opportunity to go play. This is the ‘next man up.’ The (second string, third string and scout team) practice every day. Those are the guys that will have to go play.”

No matter who happens to be on the field for the Bulldogs, they can be sure that Smith will be on the sideline in his No. 4 jersey cheering them on and coaching them.

Smith already has been doing that in practice.

“To be honest with you, the last two days he has been out there running to the ball, flying to the ball, coaching the guys, doing everything. It has been an incredible impact just on the energy of practice. … He has great energy right now,” Smart said. “I talked to him and asked to help lift spirits and push. That has been his role when he is practicing, so I don’t want him to change now that he is not.”