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Roquan Smith had never played linebacker because he didn’t look like one.
As a 6-foot, 178-pound high school freshman, Smith was long, rangy, and blazing fast, traits resembling an offensive playmaker rather than a defensive centerpiece. Folks from Smith’s hometown of Montezuma, Georgia, a 4,000-resident farming community, dubbed him as a basketball prospect, if anything.
It wasn’t until Larry Harold took the Macon County High School job in the spring of Smith’s freshman year that he tried middle linebacker. Harold had a simple theory behind his thinking.
“If you put that guy in the middle, it’s kind of hard to run away from him,” Harold said.
Smith quickly proved his coach right.
“What stood out to everybody was his sideline-to-sideline capabilities,” Harold said. “I have been coaching for 15 years and have never seen anyone move like that.”
Two years later, Smith gained 30 pounds of muscle and blossomed into the No. 2 linebacker recruit in the country. Nearly every preeminent college program— including Alabama, Michigan, UCLA, and Georgia— coveted Smith, the athlete.
But there was still skepticism that a sub-200-pound linebacker could thrive against bigger, faster competition. Smith looked more like Adrian Peterson than Brian Urlacher.
Over time, Smith has squashed conventional thinking. Last season, the inside linebacker led Georgia to a national championship appearance. He was named a unanimous first-team All-American. He received the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker, becoming Georgia’s first ever recipient.
Ironically, he starred for Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator when Smith was recruited. Alabama had offered him, but Smart and the coaching staff feared Smith was too small to play linebacker in the SEC.
Three years later, Smart confessed he misevaluated.
“(Smith) made us rethink how we see linebackers,” Smart told Harold. “He’s the best linebacker I have ever coached.”
Harold’s decision to move Smith to linebacker now seems prophetic, considering modern NFL trends. Pass-happy, spread offenses have required shifty, lighter linebackers who can cover the entire field.
Smith fits the current NFL prototype, which explains why he’s a potential top-10 draft pick in Thursday evening’s 2018 NFL Draft.
The 49ers are likely among the teams searching for linebackers, given the precarious nature of 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster’s standing with the team. Foster was charged with three separate felonies on Apr. 12, including domestic violence. The 49ers haven’t cut him, but general manager John Lynch said Monday afternoon that if the charges are proven true, Foster will be released. Lynch also indicated that he will approach the draft as if Foster isn’t a member of the team.
Bottom line: the 49ers are shopping linebackers. Lynch hosted Smith for a pre-draft visit earlier this month.
With the No. 9 overall pick, San Francisco may have the opportunity to add arguably the best linebacker in the class. If the Foster saga has made Lynch increasingly wary about character issues, he should have no worries drafting Smith, a grounded, motivated 21-year-old who has learned from past mistakes and emerged from humble beginnings.
The day he was suspended as high school sophomore was the day he changed.
Harold suspended Smith and eight of his teammates for one game late in the season. Harold felt his team was unfocused and complacent as the season, and he sent a message the entire community felt.
“I said, ‘Nobody is bigger than the program,’” Harold said. “If I die today or tomorrow, the program still going to go on.”
That’s all it took for Smith to refocus. The next game, with a playoff birth on the line, the star linebacker returned two interceptions for touchdowns and led Macon County to a win.
The suspension made Smith realize he could easily fall into the same trap as many other local, talented athletes. Attitude issues and bad grades prevented friends and relatives from reaching their potential.
“He said, ‘Coach, I don’t know, I just don’t want to be a failure,'” Harold said about Smith. “That’s why he plays so hard. The game can be taken away from him at any point. He doesn’t take it for granted.”
Harold never had to worry about Smith again.
The star linebacker set lofty goals, including winning a state championship, playing college football, and someday making it to the NFL. He set a linear path, with each goal setting him up for the next in line.
Macon County had never won a state title. During Smith’s freshman year in 2011, the Bulldogs went 1-9. One year later, Smith led them to the playoffs, where they squared off in the regional championship with Georgia power Peach County, a team that crushed Macon County 49-0 one season prior.
Before the rematch, Smith practiced shagging punts. Harold remembers Smith running each return into the opposing end zone, dunking the ball over the goalpost with two hands, and doing chin-ups. He wanted to send a message that a repeat blowout wouldn’t happen.
“My wide receiver coach said, ‘What is that boy doing?’” Harold recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but I like it.’ His attitude calmed the whole team down.”
Early in the game, Smith caught an 80-yard touchdown pass to give Macon County the lead. Peach County later regained a three-point advantage with the game winding down. On the final drive, Smith dropped a pass on 4th and 10, effectively ending the season.
After the game, Smith stood in front of an emotional locker room and accepted the blame.
“It hit me so hard,” Harold said. “The fact he said, ‘It’s my fault’ says so much about him.”
Smith set an example that inspired his teammates both on and off the field. He was the top worker in the weight room and film room. He enjoyed serving the community and helped with Special Olympics events. Three months before he went to college, he worked a $10-per-hour job drilling wells in the searing Georgia heat.
“You usually don’t get the total package like that,” Harold said.
Smith never brought the Macon County a state championship, one of his goals, but he helped instill a winning culture that eventually led the school to one. Two years after Smith graduated, Macon County won state for the first time.
“In a community like that, he inspired a movement of kids,” Harold said. “Now they believe they can make it to the NFL.”
The Montezuma community wanted its prodigal son to stay close to home. Fate had an odd way of working out.
Smith initially committed to play football at UCLA after developing a close relationship with defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. Smith signed his letter intent on National Signing Day in 2015, flashing UCLA gloves in front of a packed Macon County High gym. But later that week, Ulbrich left UCLA and took the defensive coordinator job with the Atlanta Falcons, leading Smith to reconsider his commitment.
He always envisioned himself playing for Georgia, but its coaching staff had never heavily pursued him. Once Jeremy Pruitt, now the Tennessee head coach, was named Georgia defensive coordinator in 2014, he made Smith his No. 1 recruiting priority. Smith committed to Georgia one week after de-committing from UCLA.
During his freshman year, Smith added 20 pounds of muscle to mold himself into an SEC linebacker. After appearing in all but one game his freshman season, Smith became the centerpiece of the Georgia defense as a sophomore, leading the team with 95 tackles. His junior campaign featured one of the top defensive seasons in Georgia football history. He compiled 137 tackles, 14 for a loss, and 6.5 sacks.
Smith’s incredible season tantalized NFL scouts. His sideline-to-sideline movement and coverage skills resembled a defensive back. He took proper angles and exploded into backfields to deliver big hits.
If his film wasn’t convincing enough, Smith ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, despite bulking up another 10 pounds since the end of the 2017 season. Smith resembles a true NFL hybrid linebacker.
There isn’t much to dislike about his talent or character, which the 49ers covet more than ever with the Foster saga looming over the franchise. Perhaps Smith will finally have the opportunity to move to California— a prospect that never materialized with the UCLA circumstances — if the 49ers select him in the first round of the upcoming draft.
No matter how far he goes, Georgia’s native son will never forget his upbringing. Smith always remembers to text Harold and his wife during their birthdays. When he interviewed for a coaching job with Americus Sumter High School across town, Smith called the athletic director to recommend Harold for the job.
“He would never change his number,” Harold said. “He’s a special kid.”
Soon, Montezuma plans to have a ‘Roquan Smith day.’ He will be given a key to the city. But he can’t return home too much or he will be hounded for autographs and pictures, Harold jokes.
On Thursday evening, Montezuma will throw a ‘block party,’ Harold said, to watch one of their own walk across the draft stage.
“God gave you this talent to give you a platform to show people from a small town or disadvantage they can make it, too,” Harold told Smith in high school. “He’s the poster child of this movement. But he’s the poster child of all of Georgia, now.”
Brad Almquist is KNBR.com’s 49ers beat writer. Follow him on Twitter @Bquist13.