Dean was present and grinning at Smith’s draft party in April – that’s where the two learned their paths would persist in the same direction.
The Eagles selected Nolan Smith at No. 30 in the 2023 draft, reuniting him with Dean, who was chosen 83rd overall by the team in 2022.
Smith’s first-round selection muted “numerous” doubting voices who’d told him he was too undersized to break into the professional scene, or that his pectoral injury in 2022 would be limiting.
All of that outside noise didn’t affect him much anyways. He’s always played with a chip on his shoulder – but it’s one that he placed there himself.
“That’s one thing that I always try to do. Play bigger than myself. Try to strike blocks harder, try to just be a little bit more aggressive than a lot of other people,” Smith said.
“It’s my chip. No one else put that chip on my shoulder. I put it on myself just to really better myself and better my game and just not listen to outside noise and always try to be the complete best player I can be.”
In 2022, Smith had compiled 18 total tackles and a team-high 16 QB hurries before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral in October against Florida. He pushed through eight plays after the original injury, hoping he had just thrown his shoulder out of its socket, before Coach Kirby Smart pulled him out of the game.
Despite his mounting disappointment to miss the remainder of the season, which would ultimately result in another national title for Georgia, Smith focused his energy toward rehab, outpacing expectations.
“I just channeled my competitiveness into my rehab,” Smith recalled. “So every day I tried to do like at least 100 dumbbell curls. And at a certain point I couldn’t even do certain movements. And then the next week I was doing the movements. They were like, ‘Man, you’re progressing really fast.’ And I’m just like, yeah I just go home and rehab.”
He attributes his tough, head-down, determination to his upbringing in Savannah, Georgia, where his mother raised him and his brothers on her own.
“(I learned it from) my mom and just being in a hardworking family,” Smith said. “My grandparents are 65 and they still get up every day and go to work a 7, 8 AM.”
Smith started playing football at 4 years old, causing his mother some worry at first. That is, until he earned the nickname “Headhunter.”
“She didn’t like it at first,” Smith said. “But then when she realized I can hang, and I got a little nickname called the ‘Headhunter,’ she felt safe enough to let…