‘He’s one of the best linebackers in the country': Georgia coaches, players explain why Nakobe Dean is deserving of the Butkus Award
There’s nothing more terrifying for an opposing offensive player than seeing Georgia inside linebacker Nakobe Dean cut from one part of the field to the other and make a tackle.
His breakaway speed and ability to hit a defender under pressure is a reason why he was recently named a finalist for the Butkus Award, which is given to the nation’s top linebacker.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart acknowledged Dean’s talent on Monday during a press conference.
“He’s one of the best linebackers in the country,” Smart said without hesitation. “If the award is based on statistics and number of snaps, shame on the award. That’s not what it’s about. It’s supposed to go to the best linebacker in the country. I’ve been very fortunate to coach guys before that have won that, at multiple places. He’s in that same category of guys.”
Dean garners a lot of comparisons to former Bulldog Roquan Smith, who currently plays for the Chicago Bears. Smith won the Butkus Award back in 2017 after racking up 137 total tackles, 6.5 sacks, 14.0 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback pressures. The Bears selected the Montezuma, Ga. native in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft as the eighth overall selection following his stellar junior campaign.
Dean has an impressive stat line through Georgia’s first 11 games this season: 50 total tackles, 7.0 tackles for a loss of 43 yards, 4.5 sacks for a loss of 33 yards, two interceptions, 16 quarterback pressures and three pass breakups. The junior outside linebacker is all over the field for the Bulldogs and is a major contributor to the nation’s No. 1 overall scoring defense.
The Horn Lake, Miss. native may lead the team in tackles, but he shares the spotlight with a lot of his talented teammates. Dean splits reps with seniors Channing Tindall and Quay Walker, who both are also key players on Georgia’s stout defense. He also lines up behind a defensive front that features Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, Nolan Smith and Travon Walker.
Smart pointed out that Dean’s teammates at inside linebacker are also deserving of the Butkus Award.
“You know what’s great about those three guys?” Smart continued. “They just want to win, and that’s what has been special about this team. As these accolades, awards and finalists have come out, those guys aren’t worried about any of it. They are worried about winning a championship. I think Nakobe would tell you before anybody on the team, it's a whole lot more important about how he grows, plays, and continues to lead our team, than just about that award.”
The sixth-year head coach said that all three veteran Georgia defenders all play off each other’s strengths, while also competing at the same intensity level when on the field together.
“He’s one of the most explosive, smartest and best blitzing linebackers that I’ve seen,” Smart added. “Quay [Walker] and Channing [Tindall] both have really great strengths, too. They compliment each other really well. All three of them do.”
Georgia offensive tackle Warren McClendon has to block Dean in practice almost every day. He alluded to that the Butkus Award finalist is hard to keep out of the offensive backfield, especially on exotic blitz packages and when Georgia’s defense throws in mixed coverages.
"Nakobe is a great linebacker, we do have some great linebackers,” McClendon said. “Just the way he carries himself in practice, he works hard. He also works hard in the weight room. He is deserving of it."
Tindall, who is also slated to be a top-round draft pick, said that Dean’s defensive prowess is unmatched on the field.
“He leads the defense in a positive way,” Tindall said. “He always gets us motivated. He’s just everything a linebacker should be. I definitely feel like he win the award this year.”
Dean is Georgia’s leader in tackles for loss and is currently tied with Tindall for second in sacks. His two takeaways via the air are tied with cornerback Derion Kendrick and defensive back Christopher Smith, respectively. He is fourth on the team in quarterback pressures and pass breakups, then is behind Tindall in total tackles.
Tindall said that despite being such a workhorse on the field and in the weight room, Dean is all about the team. He also mentioned that his teammate will point out mistakes made by other players and also take personal criticism. It’s something that Dean vibes off of.
“We definitely have a lot of chemistry,” Tindall said. “We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we kind of act upon them. In a way, what we see as our weakness, we kind of pray on them. We’re so competitive, so in order to make us better, to turn our weaknesses into strengths, we’ll keep tapping it and tapping it until those things have turned into strengths.”
Dean said back in September that Georgia’s defensive prides itself in being merciless on the field.
“We can’t get comfortable,” he said. “We have no room to get complacent. I feel like as a team, we are just scratching the surface.”
Nevertheless, Dean indicated that taking a play off is never an option for a unit that’s giving up 7.55 points per game.
We’ve got to keep on working,” Dean said. “We can’t get complacent.”
The winner of the Butkus Award will be announced on Dec. 7 and Dean is one of six finalists.
Here is the video from Smart’s interview: