Before the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine kicked off, only one edge rusher had run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the event since 1999. By the end of it, Georgia's Nolan Smith made it two.
The 2023 NFL Draft prospect's 4.39 time was the second-best number at the position in the span, as was his 41.5-inch vertical jump. And his 1.52-second 10-yard split was the fastest time ever for the position. (Clay Matthews and Cliff Avril recorded slightly faster times but are listed as linebackers.)
Due to ongoing recovery from a pectoral injury that ended his 2022 season, Smith said he would be participating in only three drills at the combine: the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump and the broad jump. He placed in the 95th percentile or above in each.
“I hit low 4.3s [in training]” Smith said in an exclusive interview with PFF. “I ran a good race, but I feel like I had a little more juice.”
There was a ton of speculation on what the combine would look like for Smith. As a former No. 1 overall recruit from the 2019 high school class, his athleticism has been heralded at a level destined for the pros. Five-star recruiting labels don’t automatically mean college and professional success, but they are certainly early indications that a player is able to stand out, especially from a physical standpoint.
But for Smith to really live up to that hype during the draft process, he knew he needed to take his training to the next level.
For that, he joined Ryan Capretta at Proactive Sports Performance, who was able to switch up Smith’s training to get the best results. Smith soon endured a training schedule that went six days a week. But it wasn’t just running and jumping on an indoor track. To get the best results, Capretta introduced “Field Trip Fridays,” which took Smith and other prospects training for the combine outside the facility, from the pool and the ocean to hot yoga, followed by a great recovery regimen. But Smith attributes one exercise specifically to the sub-4.4 speed we saw in Indianapolis: hills.
“One of the Field Trip Fridays they said we were going to run the dunes,” Smith said. “I’m from Savannah, (Georgia), I've run plenty of sand dunes. But when we went to this dune, it was straight vertical. It had a little bit of a flat part, but it just went straight up. Monday when we came back and ran 40s, I was so much faster. … I can only imagine what I could do getting ready for a full season.”
Capretta has trained some of the best pass rushers in the NFL, including Micah Parsons and Von Miller. Smith’s measurables and athleticism are similar to that of Miller, a player who he admires and looks up to. After the combine, Smith had plans to reach out to Miller and hopefully pick his brain about taking that athleticism and turning it into pass-rush productivity.
If there's something to nitpick about Smith's game, it's pass-rush production. He recorded just 15 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks over his last two years and never reached double digits in either category in a single season. His 22.6% pass-rush win percentage this past season was up from the 14.1% mark he posted in 2021, though,
Surprisingly enough, where Smith has been most impressive is in run defense. The smaller-in-size 6-foot-2, 240-pound edge player recorded an elite 90.6 run-defense grade in 2021, then an 82.6 run-defense grade this past season before getting hurt. Smith talked about his approach to edge play being a run-first mentality.
“You have to defend the run,” Smith said. “It is a privilege to rush the passer. You have to get to rush the passer. Guys come out in 12 personnel and if they see ‘oh, you’re not stopping a pull,’ the offensive coordinator will run pull to death. Or if they know you can’t zone read or zone surf, they will run the ball to open up other things. … We play with a light box at Georgia, so we’re two-gapping up front and making sure we're taking pressure off the back end. If I have to sacrifice some sacks to make sure the guys behind me are good, I will do that.”
That approach to the “dirty work” is simply an extension of Smith’s overall passion for the game of football. If you talk to him for just five minutes on the topic, he won’t leave any doubt in your mind that he’s ambitious about the game and becoming better at it every chance he gets.
“I begged my mom to play this game when I was 4 [years old],” Smith said. “I grew up in a bad neighborhood. My mom used to tell me, ‘You show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.’ So I only surround myself with athletes. I’ve seen a lot of people give up on their dreams, not make it to this level — some of my closest friends. When you see how hard people work, you have a different love for the game.”
For Smith, it was life-changing when he got hurt this past season. The pectoral injury wasn't supposed to be long term, but it did prematurely end his final season of college football. Being on the field yet not being able to put his helmet on was killing him inside, yet it allowed him to truly take that step back and see the game and its place in his life in a different way. He came away even more thankful for the opportunity he has.
Smith is a natural leader. You can tell just by talking to him. But he’ll tell you that he’d much rather lead with his actions, something he learned from former Georgia Bulldog and now-New York Giant Azeez Ojulari.
“You must be a great follower before you are a great leader,” Smith said. “I know people expected me to come out of high school and just be this great player. But I followed Azeez and how he did things. He doesn’t talk [much], but his actions speak so loud to me and people who watch him. He never said anything, but he was always at the front of the line, or finish the rep, or get back on the line and run. I had to carry that over and not let that die.”
Because of Smith's time on and off the field, the 2022 season gave him the opportunity to be a leader with both his actions and also his words. He knows that once he enters an NFL locker room, he’ll have to work for that leadership tag he carried proudly with the Bulldogs throughout back-to-back national championship campaigns.
But he’s ready to do that — and earn it. Just as he did with his recruiting ranking, his opportunities as a pass rusher, his place on Georgia’s historic defense and his standout combine performance.