Georgia Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith to enter NFL draft

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, file photo, Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith (3) during warm ups before the start Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Oklahoma in Pasadena, Calif. A case can be made that Smith has been the best defensive player in the country this season. He is an instinctive linebacker and Georgia will move him around in the tackle box to free him to run to the ball. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Linebacker Roquan Smith, the leader of a defense that led Georgia to the national championship game, is entering the NFL draft.

The decision announced Monday by Smith, the Butkus Award winner, was expected. He enjoyed a strong junior season, which boosted his draft status.

Smith was named a first-team All-American and the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year by The Associated Press. He led Georgia with 137 tackles, 6+ sacks and 17 quarterback hurries. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Smith was a game-changer with his speed and instincts and is seen as a possible first-round draft pick.

Despite his high draft status, Smith said in a statement released by Georgia that the decision at his ”crossroads” was not easy.

”I’ve had discussions with coaches and family and a lot of thought and prayer,” Smith said. ”The decision to leave is not easy but I know it is the right one.”

Smith added, ”Georgia will always be my school and my home.”

Coach Kirby Smart said in a statement he expects ”great success” for Smith in the NFL.

”The accolades he has received are a testimony to his ability as a player,” Smart said. ”But he has also demonstrated on and off the field the qualities of a great leader who has commanded the respect of all his teammates as well as our coaching and support staffs. As the head coach, it’s been a privilege to see him develop as a student-athlete and inspirational leader who has made immeasurable contributions to our team and to the program we are building.”

Georgia (13-2) finished No. 2 in the final Top 25 following its 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in the national championship game.

Smith joins defensive tackle Trenton Thompson as key starters on the defense who are bypassing their senior seasons to enter the draft. Thompson announced his decision last week.

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