ATHENS, Ga. — At one time, it seemed doubtful that Georgia defensive back Maurice Smith would ever play for the Bulldogs.
But that would have been hard to imagine when he returned a 34-yard interception for a touchdown in Georgia’s 13-7 upset win over Auburn this past Saturday.
Smith, a senior graduate transfer from Alabama, only arrived at his new school roughly three weeks before the start of the 2016 season but has been a steady presence for the Bulldogs in what has been an up-and-down year for the program.
Thanks to his interception, he was even rewarded with SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors Monday.
He said he found out about the award about “five minutes” before meeting with reporters Monday and called it a “blessing.” Still, it’s not what meant the most to him.
“It feels good to be able to do that and to have that title to myself,” Smith said. “It shows that hard work pays off, but it felt better to win.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who served as defensive coordinator at Alabama over Smith the previous three seasons, said after Saturday’s win that he was “happy” for him.
“The kid works,” Smart said. “There’s nobody that I’ve seen in my coaching career that works as hard day in and day out. I saw him work hard myself for all those years and now he’s mature. He knows what play is coming before it comes a lot of times. He’s a mature kid, he’s become one of the best leaders on this team and is not afraid to speak.”
Smart said he also has been impressed with how Smith has handled himself after joining the team so late in the process as a new player.
“I thought he might be a little more apprehensive around people he didn’t know to speak out and say his piece and encourage and show leadership,” Smart said Monday. “He has not been, and I’ve been very thankful for that. The way that he has played has allowed him to have a voice. You respect the way people practice and play. He’s earned the respect of the team by what he’s done.”
Smith said he takes pride in his ability to lead, believing it to be a gift he’s had throughout his life.
“I think that was something that was given from God,” Smith said. “I’ve just always been like that since I was younger. It’s just been something that I did. I felt like if I had something to say, then I was going to voice my opinion. Especially if I think it can help my team.”
And even though Smith was an outsider, his new teammates have not been put off by his immediate leadership role. Junior wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie said he was willing to listen to what Smith had to say during team meetings from the start.
“I just looked at it as he’s an older guy,” McKenzie said. “He was at Alabama and he’s been through certain games. When we listen to him as a team, we don’t get upset and say, ‘He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ We listen to him, because he’s been there before.”
Though experienced, Smith was mostly a part-time player and special teams contributor during his time with Alabama. Playing time, he said, was the biggest factor in his decision to seek for a transfer.
When Smith first arrived at Georgia, classes already had been a few days in session, but he was a starter at nickel back by the season opener against North Carolina.
So far through 10 games this season, Smith has 38 total tackles (two for loss), three pass breakups, two interceptions and one sack.
But even with all the drama surrounding his transfer and the highs and lows for the 6-4 (4-4 SEC) Bulldogs, Smith said he’s not yet reflective of it all.
“I think it will come after the season,” Smith said. “Right now, I’m just focusing on this week, the next couple of weeks ahead and just finishing out the season strong for the team.”
(You can follow Dan Mathews on Twitter @DanMathewsATL)
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