After two national champion titles at the University of Georgia, Smith looks ahead to his time with the Philadelphia Eagles — and still pauses to give back to his hometown
Written by NATHAN DOMINITZ
WATCH NOLAN SMITH, 22 RUSH TO LEVEL QUARTERBACKS, and you’ll see the former University of Georgia (UGA) football player and current rookie for the Philadelphia Eagles in beast mode. However, he starts each morning as more of a Labrador retriever than a bulldog.
“I wake up like a 6-year-old kid,” he says. “I just wake up happy, just hit the ground running.”
On a hot July day in Daffin Park’s Floyd Morris Field, Smith’s excited energy is on full display. For the third consecutive year, the Savannah native returned to his hometown to lead a free youth football camp called Pups Day Out. A Friday night session welcomed high schoolers, ages 14 to 17, while the second session — Smith’s favorite — was held for younger players, ages 10 to 13, on Saturday afternoon.
“Certain older kids nowadays, they feel like, ‘I know it all, and I’ve got all the secret sauce,’” says Smith, adding that these teens might need more of a push to be engaged and energized. “Those little kids, they wake up ready to go. That’s how I think about my life every day.”
After leading his charges through a sweat-soaked, two-hour-plus camp session, Smith imparts some of his wisdom — secret sauce or not.
Work hard, train hard. Pay attention to detail, not cutting corners.
With all eyes fixed on him, Smith reminds the kids that any opportunities to earn money and endorsements as a college football player will be taken away if they’re not academically eligible, so they have to keep up with schoolwork.
“You’re not going to step on the field if you’re not a student. Y’all feel me?” Smith tells them.
>> HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Many youngsters believe they will play in the NFL; the reality is the odds are very much against them.
Smith says that he knew he was going to make it. Not from arrogance but from taking charge of his reality.
“I knew it because I have always surrounded myself with great people and tried to be better and focused on being better, being coachable,” Smith says. “I knew that I wanted it and would do whatever it takes.”
Smith was not a typical ninth grader playing defensive end for his first season at Calvary Day School. Mark Stroud, who coached Smith in 2015, recalls how the coaches knew he wouldn’t play a down on the junior varsity squad — it was straight to the varsity.
“He was probably the best player on the field on any given Friday night as a ninth grader,” says Stroud, most impressed by Smith’s focus on improvement to get to the next level.
Players talk a lot about playing for a big college program. Smith was doing something about it.
“He had the drive, he had the charisma, he had the toughness, he had the athleticism,” Stroud says. “All of that was in place as a ninth grader. It was a matter of him continuing to grow and continuing to get better. Naturally, he showed all the signs of being great early.”
Smith built on his natural talent with years of dedication, study and sacrifice. After two seasons at Calvary Day School (2015-16) where he was all-state, he graduated from IMG Academy (2017-18), an elite private boarding and sports training school in Bradenton, Florida, where he was one of the top-ranked
prospects in the country.
“ I knew [I would make it to the NFL] because I have always surrounded myself with great people and tried to be better and focused on being better, being coachable. I knew that I wanted it and would do whatever it takes.”
– Nolan Smith
He changed his diet and ate healthier and smarter. Between school years, Smith continued training using modified methods, such as spending one summer running on the sands of Tybee Island to get quicker and faster.
When he enrolled early at UGA, he played four seasons (2019-22) at outside linebacker and helped the Bulldogs win the past two NCAA national championships.
“Being raised down here in Savannah, you’d be so humbled and work so hard at the little things that when you get to the big level, you’re just so appreciative of everything,” Smith says.
Winston Wright Jr., 22, who has known Smith since they were children, credits his friend’s mindset for making it to professional football.
“You’ve got to have that ‘it’ factor, and he’s got that ‘it’ factor. He put his head down and worked, and it paid off,” says Wright, a Memorial Day School graduate and wide receiver/kick returner at Florida State. He also partnered with Nolan in this year’s Pups Day Out camp.
“He’s a good guy, very positive,” adds Wright. “He’s always got a smile on his face. We just need more people like that in the community. … Good things happen to good people.”
Before this year’s camp started, Smith made a surprise visit to the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club — a place he spent time as a child — to sign autographs and donate school uniforms and supplies.
“I tell people this is the reason you do it, to give back to the future,” he says. “I told my girlfriend, I was shocked. It almost took my breath away. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ They’ve got so much energy, they were so hyped. They came in there and were chanting my name. I just felt good just to be able to give back. I was one of those kids. That was my highlight of the day, seeing the big-time athlete from Savannah State (University) or somewhere coming through. I just had to do that when I was down here.”
>> CHILD’S PLAY
That mindset has kept Smith grounded. He plays a kid’s game with an adult approach. Every calculated step has a purpose in preparation for the next one.
“Nolan is so cerebral,” says his business manager, Darrin Hood of Atlanta-based BT8 Management, who has known Smith since his high school days. “Every decision that he makes, he’s already thought about it at least 20 times before he does it. You don’t really meet too many young people like that.”
They discussed whether Smith should leave Georgia, then on top with its first national title since the 1980 season, after his junior year and enter the 2022 NFL Draft.
But Smith felt he had more to accomplish, like winning a second ring and improving his NFL stock to be a no-doubt, first-round pick in 2023, Hood recalls. Smith says he had promised his mother he’d stay in school, and, truth be told, he wasn’t ready to leave either.
He entered his senior year as an All-American linebacker and served as a captain. He was the defensive leader in the eighth game against the Florida Gators on Oct. 29, 2022, when he tore his right pectoral muscle — ending his college career early.
“ You’ve got to have that ‘it’ factor, and he’s got that ‘it’ factor. He put his head down and worked, and it paid off.”
– Winston Wright Jr.
Still, Smith stayed focused on football.
He became a de facto assistant coach, helping teammates with his expertise and motivational skills to finish a perfect 15-0 season and repeat as College Football Playoff national champions on Jan. 9, 2023.
In the spring, Smith earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. While his fellow classmates were attending career fairs and searching LinkedIn for jobs, Smith trained for the NFL Scouting Combine — a battery of physical tests and job interviews — and “wowed” them in early March.
>> DREAMING BIGGER
“Freakish” was a common description after Smith sprinted 40 yards in 4.39 seconds and had a vertical jump of 41-and-a-half inches — numbers more aligned with swift receivers than 240-pound human tackling machines.
His next dream-come-true moment came April 27 when the Eagles made Smith a first-round pick, 30th overall, in the draft.
He felt blessed by God, calling it “amazing” because the Eagles had selected so many of his former UGA teammates in the two most recent drafts — so much so that fans are referring to them as the “Georgia Philly Dawgs.”
Today, the Eagles’ roster lists Smith at 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds. It may seem hard to believe that somebody with his strength, size and stature was labeled for years as “not big enough.”
Smith has a post pinned to his X profile (formerly Twitter) from July 7, 2017, after the then-rising 11th grader had verbally committed to UGA. It reads: “‘Too small, Not strong enough, He needs lots of improvement.’ I will never forget these words!”
While his first season as a professional player unfolds this fall, he again faces doubters who, despite all of Smith’s effectiveness in college games, still wonder if he’s long and heavy enough to be an edge rusher/defensive end, or athletic enough to play outside linebacker at the NFL level.
As for Smith, he can’t wait for the games to start, to play the sport he loves and again prove critics wrong. He wakes up every day ready to go.
“I’m ready to learn something new, be in a new system and challenge myself,” Smith says. “You never grow unless you challenge yourself.”