UGA’s versatile Branden Smith trying to make most of final days as a Bulldog

Georgia cornerback Branden Smith is man enough to admit he may get a little emotional today when he enters the field at Sanford Stadium for the last time as a player.

The 5-foot-11, 176-pound Smith will be among an august group of upperclassmen who will play their final home game when the Bulldogs face Georgia Tech for the 105th time. He said he looks forward to a considerable contingent of family and friends to cheer him on.

“A lot of people are coming,” said Smith, a five-star prospect from Atlanta’s Washington High. “They’re excited about it. They’re looking forward to seeing my last game between the hedges. It hasn’t really hit me yet, but I know when I go out on that field for the last time, there might be some tears in my eyes — it might hit me then.”

A starter in seven games this season, Smith has recorded 21 tackles and leads the team in pass break-ups with seven. Although he’s worked strictly on defense this year, Smith returned to a familiar milieu last week in Georgia’s 45-14 victory over Georgia Southern when he carried the ball twice for 9 yards.

“It felt pretty good to run the ball,” he said. “It was my first time on offense this year, so it felt pretty good. I wish I could have had more carries in the season, but things happen.”

Smith’s rushes may have reminded the Bulldog Nation about the many roles he’s filled on the team since his collegiate career began in 2009. Besides playing cornerback, Smith has also had snaps at quarterback, running back and receiver, and has returned punts and kickoffs.

In his career, Smith has posted 76 tackles, 14 pass break-ups, four interceptions, 363 rushing yards, 63 yards on seven pass receptions, 23 kickoff returns for 410 yards and 19 punt returns for 213 yards. Georgia coach Mark Richt said earlier this week that he values Smith for his versatility and determination.

“Branden is one of those seniors that you love and appreciate,” Richt said. “He has been effective for us offensively, defensively and on special teams. I see tremendous improvement in him. One is his intensity on a daily basis in practice. He’s become much more physical in his defending of the pass and his defending of the run.

“Sometimes a guy is a field corner because you don’t want him to be the point of attack for a lot of the run or a guy who has to support the run a lot. But he’s become a very physical guy that way. He plays the screens better… He’s tenacious as a defender. We’ve seen a big improvement from him over his career. He’s a very fine player.”

The veteran secondary member has also earned laurels from his teammates, not only for his play on the field, but also for his sense of humor off it.

“B. Smith is just one of the funniest guys to be around,” fellow senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “It’s been great to play with him. I consider him to be one of my brothers on the team. We’ve grown to know each other these past four years and he’s a great player and a great guy to be around.”

“He’s a good guy to be around,” added senior safety Shawn Williams. “He’s always funny, smiling. He has a daughter he loves to death and will do anything for. He can make a joke out of anything. He’s got a running joke with one of the refs at practice about how he stands. It’s really funny.”

Williams added, however, that Smith isn’t just about fun and games.

“B. Smith has had some plays that were great over his whole career,” he said. “He’s done so much here. I think we should look at him like he’ll do whatever we need for him to do — offense, defense and special teams. He can get it done.”

A housing major who said expects to graduate in the spring, Smith also said that he plans to train for a shot in the NFL after his college career ends, but has a Plan B, just in case — he’ll come back to Georgia to seek a graduate degree in sports management. A prep star who was pursued by most of the country’s top teams, Smith said he’s been pleased with his tenure in Athens.

“The coaches were what made me want to come here,” he said. “They’ve been like father figures. Spending four years in college, you want those types of coaches. I didn’t just want football coaches. I wanted coaches to teach me about life.

“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I made a good decision to come to Georgia and everything’s been good here throughout the years. It’s been a good college life for me.”

Smith has made his share of big plays in and out of Sanford Stadium and said he hopes to make an impact one more time before leaving his home field.

“I’ve thought about it a lot — this is my last time playing college football between the hedges,” he said. “It’s going to be a special game for me and all the seniors. This is our last opportunity, so we’ve got to go out big and get a big win. I’ve been thinking about some of the big games and the big plays in the stadium and on Saturday, I hope I can make a big play to look back on and remember forever.”

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