ATLANTA -- Maurice Smith took offense to North Carolina's assertion that it could go deep on him. Twice, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky took a deep shot to stud wide receiver Ryan Switzer. Twice, Smith, making his first start at nickel corner for Georgia, registered a big play-saving breakup.
As Smith put it, UNC's inability to take him seriously against Switzer down the field made him "feel some type of way." Switzer entered the game with more than 1,700 career receiving yards.
His first diving save came late in the first quarter. Trubisky found Switzer sprinting one-on-one with Smith toward the end zone, only to be stymied by an outstretched Smith, who almost found himself on SportCenter's top 10 with an interception that just slipped between his hands. The second came in nearly the same fashion, and Smith hopes he sent a message to those hoping to test Georgia's new defensive back.
“That’ll set the tempo for the rest of the teams we play and let them know you can’t come to my side of the field," Smith said after No. 18 Georgia's 33-24 win over 22nd-ranked UNC.
Smith's journey back to the Georgia Dome was a bumpy one. His highly-publicized and painfully drawn out graduate transfer from Alabama was stressful and conflicting for just about everyone involved. Smith wanted out of Tuscaloosa in order to earn more playing time. He felt like he could do that at Georgia, but Alabama coach Nick Saban originally declined to release Smith to another SEC school. (The SEC actually has restrictions on athletes with less than two years of eligibility remaining transferring to league schools, including graduate transfers.)
After weeks of back-and-forths between Saban and Smith's party, Alabama granted Smith's full release in early August. Soon after, the SEC allowed Smith to transfer to Georgia, under the stipulations that he had to take and pass nine hours this semester in his graduate major of public health. His master's degree also has to be completed in two years.
Smith, who was pretty candid after Saturday's win, said Saban's hesitation to originally release him to Georgia stemmed from concern of Smith sharing Alabama's defensive playbook from the spring -- after Kirby Smart, Alabama's former defensive coordinator, had already left for Georgia -- and in case Alabama played Georgia in the SEC championship. Saban has maintained that he was honoring the SEC's transfer rule. Regardless of what really happened in Smith's four personal meetings with Saban or when his family gathered with Saban, this was a taxing ordeal.
“We didn’t want it to get that far," Smith said. "Unfortunately, it had to get there for Alabama and Coach Saban.”
On Saturday, none of that matter. What did was the fact that he had earned what he wanted and was back on the field. Smith, who insists he was never promised a starting spot, found out he was starting at nickel last Thursday, after playing all around Georgia's secondary.
"He believes in doing it right," Smart said of Smith. "He believes in being physical, and I've been fortunate enough to see that for three years, and then he did that when he arrived, and he plays with physicality. He's a competitor. He's a good leader."
Smith didn't transfer to Georgia to sit, and he admits he didn't transfer to "just be a contributor." He wanted to be a starter and make the sort of impact he made during Kickoff Week.
“As soon as they told me I was starting, a burden lifted off of me," he said. "Just the fact that they’re giving me a chance made a big fire in my heart. It felt good.”
Smith notched five tackles, including one on an early third-down stop. He helped take big throws away and asserted himself as a key cog in this secondary. He also provides this team with some perspective and insight into the coaching mind of Smart. His experience, with Smart's teaching style, will help teammates adapt to his tone and style.
"When he knows how to win, we know how to win," Smith said of Smart, "so let’s just trust the process.”
Smith, who said he was backed by most of his Alabama teammates while he attempted to transfer, told reporters on Monday that he swapped text messages with some of his former teammates after Georgia's and Alabama's big wins. Three years creates a bond that petty drama can't break, and those conversations should continue.
Love between them remains strong, but Smith wants to create a bond with his new family at Georgia. New relationships can take time, but Smith is getting out in front with the people of Athens. Maybe that's why he was so joyous in his late-game celebration directed to Georgia fans. It was almost as if he couldn't wait to officially say hello.
“It was all for the fans," Smith said. "It wasn’t for me; I just wanted to let the fans know that I’m very proud to be here and be a Dawg.”