ST. LOUIS – The visitor from Georgia walks up to Alec Ogletree, who smiles in recognition, extends his hand, and it all comes back: The shy smile. The soft voice. The contradiction.
How can someone so quiet, so unassuming, be so tenacious on a football field – and so prone to trouble off it?
That was what the St. Louis Rams wanted to know two years ago, and it was why they sent a small investigative unit to Newnan to unearth all they could about Ogletree. And they bought into the shy smile, and not the bad headlines, and took the gamble after most of the rest of the NFL warily passed.
It has paid off.
Ogletree is a budding NFL star, showing the great skills that made him so tantalizing to scouts while a Georgia linebacker. There’s probably be a rich contract in his near future. He has bought a house in St. Louis, and all looks well.
Ogletree need only look ahead. But no, he looks back, too.
“I just felt like I didn’t have the career that I knew I could have at Georgia,” Ogletree said. “I had a good career, and it was OK. But if I could I would do it all over again and change some of the stuff I was doing. Getting in trouble and all that stuff.”
This is the part where that trouble needs to be listed:
Three incidents (or four depending on how you look at it) between his arrival at Georgia and the draft: A misdemeanor arrest for stealing a motorbike helmet, a four-game marijuana suspension (which usually means it was a second violation of UGA’s policy), and the DUI arrest while training for the draft in Arizona.
But this is the part where you also list the incidents since he became a Ram:
“I definitely learned a bunch of life lessons,” Ogletree said. “Stuff I did back then, it is behind me now, and it’s about what you’re doing now, and pushing forward. I just want to be a better person, and have a great career here. Leave all the off-field issues.”
Les Snead isn’t surprised. He’s the Rams general manager, which means that two years ago he may have gambled his career by using a first-round pick on Ogletree. But Snead wasn’t scared. It turned out to be a blessing that the off-field questions allowed the prized linebacker to slip to the 30th overall pick.
The Rams sent people to Newnan to talk to Ogletree’s high school coaches and teachers and anybody else who knew him. That’s typical for major prospects, but with Ogletree’s history the Rams dug as deep as they could, putting stock in what his hometown folks said of him.
“Usually when people are giving him a thumbs up, pulling for him instead of against him, it’s gonna work out,” Snead said.
Snead grew up in Eufala, Ala., not too far from Newnan, so he felt he knew the terrain. He came away from interviews feeling that Ogletree was a good kid, “not malicious,” and motivated to succeed in the NFL.
But there was also the ability: Snead recalls the 2012 SEC championship, when Ogletree stopped Alabama’s Eddie Lacy on the goal-line.
“OK, this guy can play in the league,” Snead remembers thinking.
Snead and Ogletree shared the same agent, Pat Dye Jr., whose basement Snead stays in when he’s in Atlanta. But Snead said that had no impact. (“That’s like talking to mom and dad. They’re biased.”)
Besides, Ogletree’s first two seasons have shown he was well worth the pick. He has led the Rams in tackles each of his first two seasons with the team. He’s started every game, too. He has forced 10 fumbles over the two seasons and been credited with 22 pass defended and three interceptions.
He also picked off Peyton Manning during an exhibition game, causing Manning to shake his head, wondering how a rookie linebacker jumped the route.
None of this is surprising for those who watched him at Georgia. After playing safety his freshman year, he was moved to inside linebacker by then-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a former NFL assistant who knew what he had in Ogletree. Big, fast, athletic and a hard-hitter.
As a sophomore he recorded three sacks and forced three fumbles, but missed five games with a foot injury. The breakout year came as a junior, when he led the team with 111 tackles – despite missing the first four games of the season with the marijuana possession.
“What happened then, it happened. That was the rule of the school and you’ve just gotta go by the rules,” Ogletree said.
Asked what he credits for his clean slate, Ogletree said he changed his “mindset,” and the people he hung around. He decided to grow up, understand that nothing was promised, to try to play football as long as he could.
“When I look at my Georgia career, I wasn’t really too happy with it,” Ogletree said. “Definitely, now that I’m in the league, each year I feel like I have something to prove. So I come out here every day with a chip on my shoulder to get better working and stuff, doing the right thing, being on the field every snap. I’ve been doing pretty well so far and I hope to continue to do that.”
Ogletree is still young: He will turn 24 on Sept. 25, making him barely a year older than Leonard Floyd, Georgia’s junior linebacker. There’s a lot in his future, it seems.
Snead believes this could be a huge year for Ogletree, who had a strong offseason, dropping body fat. He’s as motivated as Snead has ever seen him.
“There’s kind of a look in his eye,” Snead said. “He wants to be a household name, for the right reason.”