ATHENS — Jonathan Ledbetter was in the backfield, past his man, poised to make the big play — and then the whistle blew. UGA spring game rules prevented Ledbetter from being able to complete the sack. But it still counted.
Ledbetter grinned, as he does often, and jogged back past the line of scrimmage. Life was good for him on Saturday, as it seems to be these days. The dark days of last spring and summer are long behind him.
“I learned a lot of things about myself, and really the person I am, who I need to become and who I want to become, and just really all walks of life,” Ledbetter said. “If I’m going to play my position and play football as a man, then I need to be a man outside of football.”
Ledbetter said those words late Saturday afternoon as he sat in Georgia’s locker room, talking to reporters for the first time since his troubles last year: Two alcohol-related arrests, the second one leading to a 6-game suspension, and being temporarily excused from the team so he could seek treatment.
The origin of his problems, Ledbetter said on Saturday, was not an addiction, or any deep-seated issue, but just a mistake on his part.
“But I like how they handled it,” Ledbetter said of the team’s actions, putting him in treatment. “Just to ensure. You never know. You’re put in a situation and from my coach’s perspective, UGA’s perspective, they don’t know. They don’t know my background, they don’t know my history of where I’m from. They recruited me but they don’t know the roots. So I feel like that’s a good thing to have in place, just to figure out.
“But I’ve definitely moved past that, and would like to move past that.”
Ledbetter and his team now hope the story can be the man he’s become and the player he’s become.
The player looks like a potential force this year, when he’ll be a junior and probably a starter at defensive end. Ledbetter had the 1 sack in the spring game, as well as splitting another tackle-for-loss and making 4 total tackles. He helped lead a defensive front 7 that shut down Georgia’s running game, albeit one that didn’t use its top 2 guys.
The word “adversity” gets used in football to describe a team that loses a game, or is just behind in a game. But in the truest sense of the word, Ledbetter went through that off the field last year.
Ledbetter described it as a “learning experience,” about the need to grow up and be yourself. When he got to Georgia 2 years ago — after enrolling early — he was only 17. And he admitted that his mindset as a freshman was focused on other things, the wrong things.
“I’ll be honest, I’m 19 — and that’s not an excuse, I tried to use that as an excuse when I first got here. And that’s not the case,” he said. “[I learned] just who I need to be to be mature.”
Then there’s the football part, where Ledbetter’s physique has been one of the talks of the team this spring. He’s become one of those classic cases of the guy who does such a good job in the weight room that he fools people into thinking he actually lost weight, when he actually just toned himself perfectly.
“Honestly everybody says I look skinnier, but I weight 275-280,” Ledbetter said, then laughed. “I don’t know how it looks, but it looks pretty good, I guess.”
He laughed again. Just talking about football, and thinking about football, seemed to be exactly where Jonathan Ledbetter wants to be.