Numbers don’t tell the story of Georgia LB Nakobe Dean

101621 Athens: Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean (center) catches Kentucky's blocked extra point attempt in the final seconds of a 30-13 victory over Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Athens.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Caption
101621 Athens: Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean (center) catches Kentucky's blocked extra point attempt in the final seconds of a 30-13 victory over Kentucky in a NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Junior is one of 6 finalists for 2021 Butkus Award

ATHENS – Go ahead and give the trophy to Nakobe Dean.

That was the sentiment of Georgia coach Kirby Smart when asked Monday what he thought about his star inside linebacker being tabbed one of six finalists for the Butkus Award. Named after NFL Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, the award goes annually to the best linebacker in college football.

Smart believes that’s Dean. But he’ll have to wait until Dec. 7 to find out. That’s when the votes of a 51-member selection panel will be tabulated.

Regardless of what the voters say, when it comes to playing the inside linebacker position, the Butkus committee will be hard-pressed to find one better than Georgia’s 6-foot, 225-pound junior from Horn Lake, Miss., according to Smart.

“He’s one of the most explosive, best-blitzing, smartest linebackers that I’ve seen,” Smart said.

What’s potentially problematic for Dean winning is his stats don’t look as impressive as some of the other finalists. No other team in the country rotates its defensive personnel as liberally as Georgia does. The Bulldogs have developed specialized roles for three different inside linebackers that all play regularly. So one player does not accrue all the production.

Dean has started every game the past two seasons at the “Mac” inside linebacker position for Georgia. But he also alternates regularly with seniors Channing Tindall and Quay Walker, who primarily play what the Bulldogs call the “Money” linebacker. All three play those two positions, then sometimes move outside to the “Jack” and “Sam” spots.

Orchestrated by linebackers coach Glenn Schumann, the strategy is designed to keep opposing quarterbacks guessing on who is the designated middle linebacker and from where pressure, run support and coverage might come.

“If the award is based on statistics and number of snaps, shame on the award,” Smart said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s supposed to go to the best linebacker in the country. I’ve been very fortunate to coach guys before that have won that, at multiple places. He’s in that same category of guys.”

Smart would know. Roquan Smith won the Butkus in 2017 during the Bulldogs’ run to the College Football Playoff Championship game. Georgia’s Monty Rice was a semifinalist last year. So was Dean.

C.J. Mosely (2013) and Rolando McClain (2009) also won the award when Smart was coaching linebackers and coordinating the defense at Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s Reggie Ragland also earned All-American status under Smart in 2015 but did not win the Butkus.

So exactly how does Dean’s stats stack up with the other finalists? Here’s a glimpse:

Name, school Tackles Sacks TFLs Ints/ret FF/FR

Nakobe Dean, Georgia 50 4.5 7.0 2/50 yds 0/1

Darrian Beavers, Cincinnati 75 3.0 7.5 0 2/2

Leo Chenel, Wisconsin 92 6.5 15.5 0 1/0

Damone Clark, LSU 125 3.0 11.5 1/0 1/2

Devin Lloyd, Utah 91 6.0 21.0 3/2 1/1

Chad Muma, Wyoming 120 7.5 1.0 3/45 1/0

As illustrated, Dean has far fewer tackles than most of the finalists. Some of that is because Dean is on the field less. But some of it also is because of opposing offenses not staying on the field very long. Georgia’s opponents are running an average of 63.6 plays per game, and the Bulldogs’ are giving up just 3.69 yards on those plays. No other team in the country is below 4.0.

Dean wasn’t available to interview this week or last. But he spoke of the camaraderie among the linebackers after an 11-tackle performance against Tennessee on Nov. 13. Tindall also had eight tackles and three sacks in that game, earning SEC defensive player of the week honors.

“Everybody takes on their jobs as their own,” Dean said. “We’re happy for each other anytime we make a play.”

Said Tindall on Monday: “We definitely have a lot of chemistry. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we kind of act upon them. But we’re also competitive.”

But Tindall acknowledged that Dean is unquestioned as the leader of their group. He gave Dean his own personal endorsement for the Butkus.

“Oh, yeah. He’s super smart,” Tindall said of the engineering major. “He leads the defense in a positive way, he gets us motivated, he gets us lined up. I definitely think he should get it.”

Smart believes all three of his linebackers are deserving of being finalists.

“But you know what’s great about those three guys? They just want to win,” Smart said Monday. “And that’s what has been special about this team. As these accolades, awards and finalists have come out, those guys aren’t worried about any of it. They are worried about winning a championship. I think Nakobe would tell you that before anybody on the team.”

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