ATHENS – The empty lockers were when it hit home to those who remained. Or at least for those who saw it after the fact. Then there was Jonathan Ledbetter, who stumbled upon the scene as it was happening in the Georgia locker room.
“I tried not to go in the locker room too many times when they were taking the nameplates out because I knew I would get all sentimental and emotional. But I did see the guys’ nameplates getting taken off,” Ledbetter said, with a bit of a rueful smile. “I did have to say goodbye to a bunch of guys, but they’re on to bigger and better things. I’m happy for them. I can’t dwell on the past.”
It was a bit of an odd scene at the Butts-Mehre athletic building Tuesday. The new era of Georgia football was getting underway with the first day of spring practice. But the old era was still around as Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel were all hanging around the complex, walking through the hallways, getting ready for UGA’s pro day Wednesday.
For the last few years, especially the best one in recent Georgia history, they formed the core of the team. They were the face of the program, the best players and the most vocal leaders. And now they’re gone.
“They left their mark here; they left their legacy,” Ledbetter said. “We’re going to try to one-up them. That’s all you can do. I’m going to meet them down the road later in life.”
There remains plenty of optimism about Georgia football given the talent that is on the roster and the talent that is still coming in. Still, those are some very big names whose nameplates are no longer on lockers.
Is it scary? Or is it exciting? Both?
“It’s different,” receiver Terry Godwin said. “I’ve been here with these guys three years, and then they’re finally gone. So it’s kind of something to get used to, not seeing those faces and playing around with those guys. But it’s something you’ve got to go through in life.”
This was the first time members of the 2018 team met with the media since the sudden end to their season. Interestingly, players seemed willing to talk about the way the National Championship Game ended. There were no marching orders not to talk about it. Some players even brought it up when that wasn’t the question asked.
Godwin paused for a second and smiled when asked if and when he got over that game.
“To be honest, me personally, I’m not over it because it’s something I dream about every night,” he said. “One play. We work so hard and got there, and we came up one play short. That hurt me tremendously to see our seniors sit there and cry and just weep. That was very hard. That was tough.”
There was a lot of talk about leadership Tuesday. The on-field void left by the departed – especially inside linebacker Roquan Smith – is easier to gauge. It will be hard, but not impossible, given the way Georgia has recruited lately. Nine members of the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class already have enrolled and will compete for spots this spring. That doesn’t include 5-star tailback Zamir White, who is rehabbing a right-knee injury.
The intangibles, however, are harder to gauge. Quarterback Jake Fromm is back, bringing his boyish enthusiasm, so that should help. But who else?
Tight end Isaac Nauta pointed to himself as a vocal leader on offense, along with Godwin and center Lamont Gaillard. On defense, Nauta mentioned Juwan Taylor, who started one game at inside linebacker last season and will be competing for a starting spot this spring.
“We got to work pretty quick after the national championship, and all those guys left and were training for the draft,” Nauta said. “So you kind of looked around and realized that there’s a whole new group of guys here. It was a pretty quick turnaround, and it felt weird, because you’ve been with guys for two years and now they’re gone just like that.”
Nauta snapped his fingers for emphasis.
“I think with football especially it has to be very quick to turn the page,” Nauta said. “If you focus on what you did or you didn’t do, you can’t ever move forward. I’m not saying not to remember it and not to learn from it. But I would say we turned the page really quick and got back to work. Obviously it sucked, and it was a horrible feeling, but we learned from it and I would say we turned the page very quickly.”
When the season ended, coach Kirby Smart sat down with several remaining players who would have to assume bigger roles. On and off the field. When Smart became the coach more than two years ago he arranged for players to have their own leadership council, as he called it, and for the first two years many of the same players were on it.
Chubb. Michel, Bellamy. Carter. Smith. Isaiah Wynn. John Atkins. Dominick Sanders. And still others.
Now, it’s a new group. A very new group.
“We’ve got a lot of talent on this team,” Ledbetter said. “It’s just kind of putting it together and making it a family again.”