ATHENS — Their situations are decidedly different. Then again, they’re much the same.
Both Roquan Smith and Trent Thompson are juniors, so both had a year of eligibility at Georgia remaining when they decided to turn pro in January. As we understand it now, Smith toiled terribly over the decision. Thompson, by contrast, never really had a doubt.
Yet, as they sit a month away from the NFL draft, it’s only Smith who seems assured of NFL riches. Nobody seems to be sure what to make of Thompson’s fortunes. He’ll get drafted, certainly, but how long he may have to wait is a matter of much debate.
The buzz at Georgia’s pro day on Wednesday was that Thompson is looking at a third- or fourth-round call at best. Smith, by contrast, has been invited to the NFL draft ceremonies in Arlington, Texas, and projects as a top-15 pick.
That was pretty much the feedback Smith, the 2017 Butkus Award winner, received when he filled out his underclassman evaluation application from the NFL back in December. Yet he insists his decision wasn’t the no-brainer that many of his Georgia teammates described.
“Top 15 is pretty special,” said Smith, who led the SEC in tackles and the Bulldogs in sacks and tackles for loss, as well. “I knew I’d pretty much be a first-round pick; that’s what they were telling me. But, at the end of the day, it wasn’t even about that for me. It was more about the things I enjoy [at Georgia] and what we did together. It was special, very special. It’ll definitely be something I miss, but life goes on and you have to do what’s best for you.”
Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb, Davin Bellamy and Sony Michel all chose to return in 2017 for their senior seasons for much the same reason. However, none of them received the level of draft grade that Smith did. Their feedback was similar to what Thompson heard.
But these decisions aren’t based solely on draft grades and contract potential. There also can be extenuating factors.
Thompson, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound defensive tackle from Albany, has been inundated with injuries throughout his college career. He had shoulder surgery a year ago and struggled with knee injuries last season. He also had a rather high-profile medical episode in February 2017 that resulted in his hospitalization and withdrawal from school.
Not only did the incident create health concerns for Thompson, it also put him in a hole academically. Whether he would have been eligible to play another season for the Bulldogs is unclear. But most believe it was time for the player affectionately known as “Big Jolly” to make the jump to the pros, anyway.
“Everybody has their own things going on,” said Bellamy, who also worked out for scouts Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s going on at home for a guy that may influence their decision. For Roquan, man, it was a no-brainer. I kind of felt like with him there was nothing else to prove. But I’d say the same with Trent, really. He was a three-year starter here. He put his body on the line for his team. It gets to a point where you have to be a little selfish, thinking about yourself and your career.”
Thompson certainly arrived at UGA with more fanfare. In fact, when he signed with the Bulldogs out of Albany’s Westover High, he was the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, according to the composite rankings compiled by 247Sports.
Thompson lived up to that billing at times. By the end of his sophomore year, he was almost unblockable. He definitely was for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, earning both overall and defensive MVP honors with 8 tackles and 3 sacks. He’d finish the season with 56 total stops.
But between recovering from shoulder surgery and battling a knee sprain, Thompson’s snaps decreased in 2017. He ended up alternating with sophomore Tyler Clark, who emerged as a star in his own right. Thompson missed two games and finished with 38 tackles, 3.5 of those for loss.
“He’s been pretty beat-up,” Bellamy said of Thompson. “But he has three years of good film in the best conference in America and he’s been dominant all three of those years. I think he’s going to do pretty good at the next level.”
Most everybody agrees about that.
In all these cases, Georgia players who are considering making the jump early consult Kirby Smart as well as their position coaches. But they also look to sources outside the football program. The key is arriving at an informed objective opinion.
“I tell them whatever that ask,” Smart said. “We’re advocates for our players and we want to do a great job for them. Trenton’s certainly done tremendous job for us since being here. He’s pushed through a lot of injuries and he’s a great kid. We wish him nothing but the best.”
Smart was asked whether he thought Thompson would benefit from another year in college. “That’s not my decision,” he said. “Our job as coaches is to get them information. That’s what I always try to do. Whether they decide to go or decide to stay, it’s the same thing. You arm them with ammunition. I’ve got to give them all the information. Information is power. And then they do with the information what they want. That’s the best thing we can do as coaches.”
Thompson seemed to struggle through some of his drills Wednesday. He appeared to be favoring his right leg whenever was asked to do timed runs and dummy step-overs, as well.
Smith had a nearly flawless workout, even though his status indicated he need not even bother with participating. He didn’t do any of the physical testing but went through position drills with Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Lions coach Matt Patricia presiding.
For as much fuss that is being made about him now, it’s hard to believe Smith ever considered coming back to Georgia one more year.
“He was real close,” Smart said. “He had several moments where he was leaning toward coming back, several moments he was leaving. Again, that’s not my decision. All we do is give them the information we get and try to educate them with that information. He did a great job of handling it.”
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