ATHENS — When he came back, he did it quietly. Natrez Patrick didn’t release a statement. He hasn’t held a news conference to talk about putting the past behind him, learning from his mistakes, and all the usual contrition. He said that before, and it didn’t hold up.
He’s at the point where only time and good actions will prove anything. So this is what Patrick has done in the months since he returned to the Georgia football team: He has led. He has acted like the senior and returning starter that he is, the potential All-SEC inside linebacker that he is — if he can stay straight.
It’s too soon to know whether all that will happen. What is known is that seemingly every time a Georgia defensive player this spring has been asked to name a vocal leader, one name keeps coming up.
“Vocal leader? Natrez Patrick. He’s definitely a vocal leader,” said fellow senior inside linebacker Juwan Taylor. “He comes out every practice hyping everybody up, trying to be that leader, just trying to get everybody going.”
“Natrez is a great teammate, a great guy. He’s going to be a good leader for us,” junior safety J.R. Reed said. “I’m happy to see him out there with us because he can lead this team, and he can help us on defense a lot.”
On the field, that’s definitely true. Patrick has the most career tackles (116) of any returning Georgia player, and the second-most career starts (18) after senior cornerback Deandre Baker. Three years ago, when Georgia inserted a freshman inside linebacker into the starting lineup for the final two games of the season, it was not Roquan Smith. It was Patrick.
The problems for Patrick have been off the field. The issues are well-chronicled: three arrests for marijuana possession, the last of which was dismissed but led to a probation violation last December. Patrick then went into a treatment facility, missing the Rose Bowl and the National Championship Game.
Under a strict interpretation of UGA’s student-athlete drug policy, Patrick probably would not be on the team anymore. But UGA tweaked the policy last year to give leeway to individuals who it believes need treatment more than discipline.
Another one of Georgia’s top returning players, defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter, also went through off-field issues. Ledbetter went through alcohol treatment and has not had any issues since he returned.
Ledbetter and Patrick were roommates and confidants.
“He was my rock and I was his rock for a while,” Ledbetter said. “We kind of fell off for a second. He’s back where he needs to be. And he knows what he needs to do to be the football player he’s supposed to become, and he’s doing that.
“I’m proud of him, and he’s going to continue to do that. I really think he’s going to step up this year and be a really, really good player, and be an effective player.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked earlier this year about how he handled Ledbetter. He outlined a philosophy that could have applied to Patrick as well.
“I don’t believe in the day and age of first-time guy has a mistake that you give up on him,” Smart said. “If kids are compliant, they go to class, they’re on time, they do what they’re supposed to do, and they make mistakes, we need to try to save them. We need to try to make them better. He’s a great case in point. He’s not done playing yet, and we’ve still got to support him. But there’s kids on our team that will make mistakes, and to throw them out to the wind and just throw them out to society is not the way to go, and I think he’s a case in point.
“For every one like him, there may be one that we can’t help or can’t fix, but we have to try to do that as a program because a lot of these kids need our guidance, they need us, and we want to be there to support them, and Led is a good story.”
Patrick could also be developing into a good story.
“I can say he’s really focused,” Taylor said. “I feel like this year he’s really focused on the mission that he’s trying to accomplish. I feel like he’s being that great leader right now. I’m just happy for him.”