LOS ANGELES — Roquan Smith twice visited this city with a population of nearly 4 million as a UCLA recruit before he announced he was headed to play for the Bruins on signing day in 2015.
Georgia fans are still thankful to this day he ended up not sending in his letter of intent.
A change on UCLA’s coaching staff opened the door for the Bulldogs to land a player who became a unanimous All-American inside linebacker this season.
The Montezuma, Ga., native ended up staying close to home for college, but he’s traveled far and wide away from football. His interest in venturing beyond his small middle Georgia town – “three or four traffic lights,” he said – began in elementary school when he was fascinated by a social studies book.
“I used to always pull it out and just look at places on the map and go, ‘I want to go there, I want to go there,” Smith said Friday.
Smith was able to make that a reality starting when he was about 15 when he went on a trip to Mexico with his aunt. He says he’s been to Central America, South America and throughout the U.S.
He last traveled abroad on a spring break trip with friends to the Bahamas. His favorite place so far is Honduras, where he said he tried to help those less fortunate by offering money on the street. He went there while on a cruise with friends.
“I’m trying to get to Spain, the contintent of Africa,” he said. “Maybe Austrailia or New Zealand.”
Smith avoided saying if he’s made up his mind on if he will declare for the NFL Draft, which would mean he would be traveling for combine training as a pro prospect when Georgia’s run in the playoff ends. He won’t say even if he’s received an NFL Draft grade back.
“That’s not my focus,” he said at a Rose Bowl media availability ahead of Monday’s national semifinal game against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. “I’m just moreso focused on this game and Oklahoma.”
Alec Ogletree, a first-round draft pick from Georgia in 2013, said Smith looks ready for the next level.
“The way the league is now he fits right in to the scheme of what they look at as a linebacker,” Ogletree, who plays inside linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, said this week. “The speed, the toughness, everything. He can cover and play the run, too. It definitely, definitely fits the league really well.”
Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, a coordinator in the NFL with three teams, put is this way: “He has the unique combination of speed, football IQ, and physical play, and he loves the game.”
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Smith, the Butkus Award winner as nation’s top linebacker, can add to his 113 tackles and 10½ tackles for loss Monday.
“Their defense obviously is really good, but definitely 3 is a hell of a player,” Oklahoma fullback Dimitri Flowers said referring to Smith’s jersey number. “He’s a rare mix of speed and physicality. That’s not something you see a lot.”
Flowers had to go back to when he was a true freshman in the Russell Athletic Bowl when he went up against Clemson’s Vic Beasley, a top 10 overall pick who plays outside linebacker for the Faclons, for someone who has the traits that Smith possesses.
“It’s that kind of athleticism and speed that reminds me of that,” he said.
Mark Richt got to coach Smith for one season when Smith was a backup to UAB transfer Jake Ganus
“I know people are talking great things about him, and athletically, he’s just one of those guys that can really run, and he’s still a very physical guy,” said Richt, now Miami’s coach, who landed Smith in 2015. “If physical, thumping type linebackers can run, then they can be pretty special.”
Smith’s next destination is Rose Bowl Stadium, where he would have played for UCLA if he had stuck with that decision. He reversed course when he learned defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich would be bolting for the Atlanta Falcons.
“I try not to play the what if game,” Smith said. “What if I signed that? What if I was in L.A? I can’t really say. I don’t know how my life would have turned out.”
Smith said he’s happy he made the decision to go to Georgia. Bulldog fans and coaches are thrilled he did, too.
“As I think about it now,” Smith said, “the years I’ve had at Georgia, I can’t really envision myself anywhere else.”