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A new friend: Roquan Smith’s special roots set the stage for his NFL career

Smith has the athleticism and drive to thrive for a long time with the Bears. It’s crucial to understand his beginnings.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Smith profiles as the next great Bears linebacker.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

To cap their rebuild and begin putting the finishing touches on their defense, the Bears drafted defensive stalwart Roquan Smith with their first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft. The 2017 Butkus Award Winner - appropriately awarded to the nation’s best linebacker - is someone that appropriately fits with Chicago’s transcendent tradition at the position. He’s someone that general manager Ryan Pace and company have continually insisted was at the top of their draft board priorities for a reason.

As rookie minicamp opens this weekend, the born leader in Smith will naturally lead a group of fresh faces into Halas Hall as they take in their first NFL experience. He’ll start his Chicago career with an advantage earned on his own: becoming a special football player with an organization that historically appreciates his position more than any other. Smith is the definition of the modern linebacker that can go from sideline to sideline, blanket offensive options in the middle of the field in pass coverage, and who does it with a humble smile. He’s the future of the position and is ideally that final boost the Bears’ defense needs to take the next step towards becoming a winning, championship level unit.

There are immediate impact talents, and then are those that fit like a glove in tandem with that impact. Smith is the best of both worlds for the Bears as he slips on his No. 58 jersey and his career begins to bloom.

Measuring the effect Smith is going to have on the Bears’ defense and the franchise as a whole is a challenging, but rewarding process as time develops. I spoke with Jeremy Attaway, editor-in-chief of SB Nation’s Georgia website, Dawg Sports, to set up the launch point for the promising young linebacker.

How will Smith fit in Chicago? Is it fair to say he’s perfectly in line as a face of the franchise at linebacker? What are his greatest strengths?

Jeremy Attaway: You want to see new Bears’ linebacking tradition in Smith meeting the man who paved the way in Hall of Famer Dick Butkus? Note this interaction between the two late last year.

Real recognizes real. Greatness sees greatness.

Okay, more detail. I’ve always been partial to Smith. He and I grew up down the road from each other (albeit a few years apart), and I first saw him play during his sophomore year in high school in Montezuma, Georgia. Even at that age you could tell he was a natural football player. He played all over the field, even at wide receiver.

On defense, Smith had a nose for the ball and was incredibly productive even if he didn’t stand out getting off the bus. His greatest strength remains his instincts. Smith just has a phenomenal nose for the ball. His measurables are good and intangibles are great. Each of these skills has translated to his play as an adult.

Smith isn’t particularly loud, brash, or boastful. But he’s quietly confident, and doesn’t back down on the field. I think people in Chicago are going to love that.

It was a slow ascent for Smith at Georgia. He went from playing sparingly as a freshman, to All-American and Butkus Award Winner in his final year. What factored most into his development? What does this mean for his progression in the NFL?

JA: Georgia head coach Kirby Smart has repeatedly described Smith as one of the hardest working players he’s ever coached. Given the dozens of Alabama defenders who played under Smart and have heard their names called in the draft, that’s saying something. Smith’s success has come from combining tremendous instincts with meticulous preparation. He’s rarely out of position. His angles are good. And his tackling form is some of the best you’ll see at any defensive position.

For a city like a Chicago that loves a player with a blue collar work ethic, Smith is the perfect fit. He won’t be seen as a green rookie for long.

Smith doesn’t always take on blocks well. Is this a huge concern in his transition to pro football? Is there anything else to worry about?

JA: Smith’s size is the main culprit for his difficulties taking on blocks. At 6-foot-1 and 236 pounds, he has a tendency to get engulfed by linemen if they can get their hands on him.

The flip side is that Smith is fast enough to get sideline-to-sideline to make plays. He also rarely presents a big target, and changes directions as well as any linebacker in the 2018 draft. Smith also likes to lay the wood and occasionally comes into his tackles recklessly. On balance, his ability to lay ballcarriers on the ground sooner rather than later is a huge benefit.

What is the most optimal way the Bears use Smith? Where will he help this defense? How much of an immediate impact can he have, and what’s his ceiling?

JA: Smith is as good in man coverage as any inside linebacker I’ve ever seen. Some of that is his experience as an all-region receiver in high school. Most of it is that he has great hips and a low center of gravity when dropping back. He’s always under control, understands his responsibilities, and is adept enough to fill them. Georgia even considered playing him at nickel from time to time: which is an amazing concept for a guy pushing 240 pounds. I expect him to be an asset in coverage from the start.

When all said and done, what most sticks out to you from Smith’s time as an amateur at Georgia?

JA: One of Smith’s signature performances at Georgia came in the 2017 season’s 20-19 victory at Notre Dame.

Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush had rushed for over 100 yards the prior week against Rutgers. Admittedly, it was Rutgers. But still, Wimbush is a great athlete for anyone to corral. Georgia assigned Smith to shadow him throughout the game in any situation where Wimbush might take off.

The result? Wimbush tucked it 16 times for a total of one rushing yard. It was as dominating a one-on-one performance as any in college football in 2017. Smith imposed his will on Wimbush and he had no answer. The embodiment of Smith’s relentless as a football player zeroed in on the task at hand.

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.