No. 1 DT Maason Smith: 'I can see myself definitely as a Georgia Bulldog'
HOUMA, Louisiana - Last weekend, the nation's top defensive tackle in the Class of 2021, Maason Smith, made the hour-and-a-half trek to see the LSU Tigers.
On the Thursday prior to that visit, he told UGASports that the pressure to play in his home state was as intense as you might expect.
"It's definitely really real. Shoot, every time I talk to somebody in Rouses, or in Cannata's, or in Walmart, every time after they talked to me, they say, 'Go Tigers.' It's something you can't forget, because I'm down here in the state of Louisiana. So I get a lot of pressure about it, but at the end of the day, I'm not here to make everybody else happy," Smith said. "If LSU's not the best fit for me, then I'm not going to go to LSU. It's definitely a great school. And that's definitely one of my top schools, but at the end of the day, whatever makes me the happiest, that's exactly where I want to go."
The pressure built to the point where the 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior had to clearly reiterate his intentions to the LSU staff.
"Last year I definitely [felt more pressure]. Then I just told them like, 'I'm not going to make my decision until December 16th, 2020. So, whether you pressure me or not, it's still that date.' But, they've done a really good job of giving me space during this tough process," Smith said. "They want me 100 times more than a lot of people, because I'm in-state, and they've got a lot more pressure to get me here, too. They're a very good program, and they really understand that I'm trying to make the best decision about my life and my family. So they really don't even pressure anymore. They always tell me some funny stuff, like jokes and stuff, but nothing really serious, because they feel like they've already made a good relationship with me, to know that I'll be good."
For Smith, that step back from the pressure of LSU allowed him a chance to explore his other options.
"Athens, Georgia was the first place I went. I made that a plan.... So here, everything got shut down on March 13, and I was at LSU on March 7. So the whole time, I haven't gone anywhere. The first place I told myself I was going to go, was Athens, Georgia, because I've been planning to go to Athens since I was in 10th grade, and it always fell through. So I had to get down there, and see what all the hype was about," Smith said.
Despite that desire to visit with the Bulldogs straight out of quarantine, the relationship is comparatively young when put up against the Tigers—and for reasons you might imagine.
"When I was in 10th grade, Georgia didn't really talk to me. A lot of schools didn't really talk to me, because like I said, I'm in Louisiana, I'm in LSU territory. So some dudes weren't scared, but they didn't want to waste their time butting in, and sticking their head through the door, and seeing how I was doing," Smith said. "One day, just out of the blue, I'd texted Coach Tray Scott, the defensive line coach at Georgia, because I hadn't heard from them in a minute, and me and Coach Scott had a good relationship, even back then. I hit him up, and he was telling me everything. He was being honest, he was saying he thought I was going to go to LSU, because this was after they won the Natty, and he thought it was a done deal."
Smith set the record straight with Scott.
"I told him, 'No coach, I'm trying to make this decision for myself. It's great they won a National Championship, and that's legendary, because have one of the best college football teams in a minute.' But I was still taking my time. After that, it's been skyrocketing through the roof. I talked to Coach Smart yesterday," Smith said.
Since that time, Smith has been able to dive in on all things Bulldogs, and he's recently arrived at a major realization about how he could fit in with their future.
"I've always known they're a very good program. The last five years I don't even remember how many times they played in the SEC Championship. It's usually them versus Alabama, LSU, or Auburn every year," Smith said. "I've always liked Georgia since they offered me, but it was never the bigger picture. I've never seen myself as a Georgia Bulldog, but now I can see myself definitely as one. Just with that, the relationship has been better, and better, and better. I talk with the coaches almost every day. So once you talk to somebody like that, you're obviously going to see the good things about them, and just always talk about them. I talk about them all the time."
The relationship with Scott has been fundamental in Smith being able to see himself in Athens.
"Coach Scott, like he's from Arkansas, he went to Arkansas Tech, which is a D2 school," Smith said. "He told me that people didn't really believe in him when he first came into Georgia. Even though he was at North Carolina, and schools like that before. To be honest, I think he's one of the most humble coaches, because he hasn't made it from the top, he's had to work his way from the bottom."
And Scott's reputation proceeded his arrival at Georgia.
"He really loves his guys. And I like every coach I've talked to. Because there are coaches that I talk to, that aren't recruiting me anymore, but everybody I talk to says that Coach Scott is a great dude, he cares for his players to the fullest. I've talked to him one time in real life, and that was here, when he came on a recruitment trip last year. But, on the phone, we talk all the time. So, I think he's a great coach. And he's learned from some of the best, like Pete Jenkins," Smith said. "He used to tell me he used to come to the Nicholls Camp in Thibodaux all the time. A lot of coaches would come, but he's learned Pete Jenkins is one of the D-line gurus around. I know Georgia last year had the number one defense in the country. I know as a defensive player, that sounds real nice to me. But, I think what sticks out about Georgia and a few other schools is just the relationships. How they recruit is very different from a lot of people."
That's because recruiting doesn't stop with Smith and his sizable talent.
"Like they checked up on my mom, dad, grandma if they could. They check up on everybody, and I think that speaks volumes to me, because they don't have to do that at all," Smith said.
Of course, the opportunity to play at the highest level also matters, and while the Bulldogs have yet to win a national championship under Kirby Smart, Smith sees that well within their grasp.
"They're definitely a top 10 program every year. They're going to play for the SEC Championship almost every year. So they have the ability to get over that hump, because usually whoever wins the SEC Championship is in the playoffs. And usually goes to the championship," Smith said. "I think this year will probably be their year, because their team is loaded, and not everybody else is loaded. You've got Alabama on the West side. I think with the mixture of JT Daniels and all of the other dudes that came in [they're close]. They've had the number one recruitment class for the past two years, and those dudes are going to start playing this year. So, I think it will be a real good year for them, just to see how everything plays out. That's one thing I wanted to wait for, just to see how the season played out for the teams I'm really looking at."
Having Smart at the helm, as both a coach and person, has reinforced Smith's positive notions about UGA.
"The first time I talked to him, it was a 30-minute talk. He was just telling me about himself, his family. And one of the things I really liked from Coach Smart is that he cares for his players a lot more than some coaches. I can really tell that. When he called me, some of the players were at his house eating. His wife had cooked dinner, and I think that's really cool, just to hang out with your players on a non-football level. I think that's essential for a head coach to do. To always keep your players knowing, 'I'm here for you. I've got your back.'"
Smart's care goes well beyond the dinners and check-ins, however, and it's something that Smith is watching closely in his recruitment.
"Another thing about Coach Smart—some of these coaches, I'm not going to say any names—some of them though, with the Black Lives Matters stuff, they don't really handle it as well. I think he's been handling it very well, and that speaks to me, being a young black man. He tells me all the time, 'I've got you, if you've got me.' So, it's a very good relationship with stuff like that. And I think that's a great trait that he has, that some other coaches don't have," Smith said.
That social advocacy and awareness Smart demonstrated is something Smith has certainly come to value.
"When I was on the phone with Coach Smart, they had a march on campus at four o'clock that day. He called me, and we were just chopping it up, and he was asking me how I felt about everything, just getting my inside opinion, and I told him how I felt. Then he was like, 'We've got a march at four o'clock.' Then he was trying to say that people were telling him, 'You're only just doing it because Nick Saban did it,' or Coach [Lincoln] Riley did it, or something like that. He was like, 'We've been having this planned for a minute now, just with COVID and stuff, it's hard to do it.' They have their players on a tight rope right now; they can't really go everywhere. But, I just like how he can embrace having so many African American players and still have his Caucasian players and just blend them, and not really see skin color. He sees personality and morals, and stuff like that."
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO, AS MAASON SMITH RECAPS HIS EXPERIENCE IN ATHENS, HIS TAKES ON KOREY FOREMAN, AND THE RELATIONSHIPS HE WAS ABLE TO FORM DURING HIS TRIP.