Roquan Smith Wiser for the Waiting

MONTEZUMA - Inside the four-star linebacker's decision not to ink with UCLA—or anyone else for that matter—on Signing Day.

Roquan Smith, the four-star Macon County linebacker, seemed headed to sign with UCLA on Wednesday. That was before the Bruins' layup turned into a wild day, resulting in Smith not inking with anyone on Signing Day and perhaps becoming the national story of this year’s recruiting class along the way.

What is coming next is anyone’s guess.

The night before Smith was to pick between Georgia and UCLA, the prospect had communication from a slew of people in the recruiting world including: new Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis and Georgia players Lorenzo Carter, Sony Michel and Dominick Sanders.

After dinner at Zaxby’s in nearby Perry the night before his commitment, Smith called Carter for his advice. He trusted Carter, feeling as though the Georgia linebacker could provide insight rather than just trying to steer him to Georgia.

Smith went to bed split anywhere from 60/40 to 50/50 about what he would do the next day. Macon County coach Larry Harold advised college coaches in the days leading up to Signing Day to give Smith space.

It was a complicated time for Smith—his phone ringing off the hook from coaches, current players, fans doling advice, etc. He was genuinely torn the night before - and quite possibly the morning of his announcement. Smith wished there was another week between his final official visit at UCLA, and when he signed.

So he, in a way, created that time for himself.

The prospect would commit on TV but wait to sign until a few hours after the event. It would give Smith the time to come down from the high and adrenaline rush of picking a school on live TV. That delay, which was planned and told to coaches recruiting him the night before, was a critical help for Smith.

Macon County coach Larry Harold talks with Roquan Smith. (Caitlyn Rae Stroh/Dawg Post)

He was set to pick a school at 11:20 a.m. on ESPNU, which was stationed in Montezuma for the announcement, but he wasn’t totally sure what he would do. Feeling rushed, he packed two sets of gloves to choose between: Georgia and UCLA. They were placed in a bag that Smith took with him to to the podium that was set up for the TV broadcast.

With a live audience watching and a packed gym on hand, Smith clumsily put on blue and yellow gloves and announced that he was headed to “the University of California at Los Angeles”. The gym, with many Georgia partisans in attendance, was stunned by the announcement - the reception wasn’t as hard-rocking as it would have been had he picked the home-state Bulldogs.

Later Smith admitted he immediately realized the gravity of his decision. The pressure had ramped up immensely with the gym’s reaction and the TV audience.

Rather than a feeling of relief, Smith felt the opposite when he announced his decision. Though he didn’t feel it meant anything negative towards UCLA, it caught him by surprise.

“I didn’t expect that,” he said.

Fellow high-powered prospect and Georgia signee Trenton Thompson had come up to watch Smith commit. It was an hour-long trip for Thompson, who said immediately after the telecast ended that Smith had “to do what is right for him.”

But it wasn’t too long before Thompson was talking with Smith about flipping to Georgia - straying from his on-camera commitment. Thompson and Smith got to know one another after camps, combines and various recruiting events.

The moment may have gotten to Smith, or he was spending too much time with friends and fans in the audience. By 2 p.m. Smith’s decision to wait just a little longer seemed wiser beyond his years.

At 2 p.m. Fox Sports reported UCLA defensive coach Jeff Ulbrich, who was the primary recruiter and the person Smith was closest with at UCLA, had been hired by new Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn.

Georgia, unexpectedly, had life; Smith had confusion; UCLA had explaining to do.

Georgia coach Mark Richt was a little late for his yearly Signing Day press conference. But this time, the coach met with the media without his assistant coaches for the first time in his tenure in Athens. The coaches weren’t boycotting the media - they were trying to take advantage of poor clock management by the Bruins.

Quinn and Ulbrich coached together in Seattle before Ulbrich was hired by UCLA head coach Jim Mora to be the linebackers and special teams coach in 2012. He was elevated to defensive coordinator in 2014.

Smith was unaware of the news, but Georgia’s coaching staff made certain that news got to Macon County as fast as possible. Speculation behind the scenes in the media is that at least one media outlet was aware Ulbrich was going to leave UCLA as long as three weeks ago, but sat on the story until after Signing Day.

“It was common knowledge,” said one reporter. “They just agreed not to report it until after signing day.”

But Alex Marvez’s report at 2 p.m. reached Smith’s ears soon thereafter, and he had not yet sent in his letter of intent to Westwood.

“You heard what’s going on?” Smith asked as he walked back into the gym after going to Cheddar's in Warner Robins with Harold.

If Smith was conflicted before, the confusion was about to multiply. Georgia, which had been staying in constant contact with Smith during his recruiting, had seemingly lost Smith, but had a chance to get back in. Florida State, which had not been a player for Smith during his recruitment, called and let him know they would be pursuing him. UCLA was still expecting Smith to sign with them.

Was Smith still committed to UCLA with the apparent coaching change on the way?

Smith while picking the Bruins. (Caitlyn Rae Stroh/Dawg Post)

“I don’t know,” he said, also indicating that he had no timetable for faxing his letter of intent.

Ulbrich and Smith connected on the phone. Ulbrich told Smith that him making the leap to the Falcons was not a done deal and that he was still thinking about what the cross-country move to Atlanta from Los Angeles would mean for his family - particularly his children.

Smith had expressed his excitement in the stability of UCLA’s coaching staff two weeks before Signing Day.

“I just know that Coach Mora isn’t going to the NFL,” Smith said.

But now the key player in the Bruins’ recruiting scheme and a three-year relationship had vanished.

Smith had to figure out his status, too. Reporters asked him if he had reopened his commitment. Smith wasn’t sure. He wasn’t interested in Florida State. UCLA and Georgia were still the most attractive.

Smith’s phone was blowing up from the moment he pulled his gloved hands above the table. He decided to turn it off, distancing himself from outside opinions and questioning. The text messages, well over 100 at this point, were piling up - many from people Smith didn’t even have saved in his phone.

At 17 years old, Roquan Smith was asked to make one of the biggest decisions of his life at a very specific moment. And he wasn’t quite ready.

== With reporting from Dean Legge ==

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