LOS ANGELES — Jonathan Ledbetter came to Georgia as football player, but he has evolved into a borderline life coach. He can’t help but find that amusing.
“I’m mentoring guys,” he said, smiling. “It’s kind of funny to have guys come up to me and ask questions, but it’s also kind of cool. When you go through something like I did, there’s no point in having an experience if you can’t share it with somebody. It’s different when you hear it from an older person, like a coach or a parent, as opposed to one of your peers.”
Georgia is in the Rose Bowl this week in part because of its defense, and the defense has been what it is this season in part because of Ledbetter. The junior was recognized at the team awards banquet with an “Up Front” award, given to players on the line of scrimmage. He had seven quarterback pressures, 3-1/2 tackles for loss this season, and a sack at Tennessee. He buried Auburn quarterback Jarett Stidham in the SEC Championship game just before Stidham threw an interception, though he somehow was penalized for roughing the passer, negating the interception.
But Ledbetter’s biggest accomplishment is simply that he’s here.
“When I wake up and my feet hit the ground, I’m just thankful for the blessings that I have,” he said. “I was kind of naïve at first.”
He was suspended for the first six games of the 2016 season after he was arrested twice in a span of four months at the age of 18 on alcohol-related charges, first for underage drinking, then for DUI.
It was the first real test for then-new coach Kirby Smart, in terms of how he would deal with a young player in the areas of treatment and discipline, at least outside the parameters of the school’s policy.
Smart did right by Ledbetter.
Ledbetter did right by himself.
He underwent treatment. He grew up. He came to understand what was given to him and how quickly it could evaporate. Georgia has had to dismiss more than its share of athletes after multiple incidents involving alcohol or drugs.
How close was Ledbetter to not being here with Georgia this week?
“If it wasn’t for Kirby, I honestly can say I was there,” he said Friday. “I got in trouble too many times. He kind of sat me down as a father figure and said, ‘Look, I don’t need you. I want you. You’ve got to get this right.’ That was the first time I really had somebody sit me down and say not just that you’re needed, but you’re wanted.”
This was before the terms of Ledbetter’s suspension had been decided. It was a wakeup call for the former Tucker High School standout.
Ledbetter was allowed to participate in team activities and attend meetings. He said he “worked twice as hard” as normal. He worked out four times a week.
“It was really a chance for me to enhance every skill and my mental approach. I came back stronger.”
Teammate Lorenzo Carter said Ledbetter’s mistakes are not unusual for a young college athlete.
“He knew better, but he was young,” he said. “What we have to realize is we’re not average people. Our mistakes are put on blast. Our mistakes are on the front of newspapers and ESPN. But in the end, it’s all about what you do next. That’s what defines you. I’m proud of him for what he’s done.”
Ledbetter’s hope is that Natrez Patrick learns the same lessons. The Georgia linebacker had multiple arrests or incidents involving marijuana. After failing a test for alcohol and opiates, it was learned last week that Patrick would enter a treatment program.
Ledbetter has spoken to Patrick (as well as freshman DeAngelo Gibbs, who also reportedly has struggled and is away from the team because of an undefined medical issue).
“I’m not really going to comment on that because that’s his own story — it’s still to be written,” Ledbetter said of Patrick.
He said, “Kirby’s always calling on me,” to talk to other players. But that only goes so far.
“You have to figure it out on your own,” he said. “Somebody can give you all the tools, but if you don’t take those tools and apply them it doesn’t matter.”
But he feels indebted to Smart, who tried to recruit him to Alabama. Even after Ledbetter flipped his commitment to Georgia as a high school junior, Smart told him, ‘I’m going to coach you one day.”
To be clear, Smart wasn’t prophesying that he would become Georgia’s head coach, but rather that Ledbetter would change his commitment. But they both eventually wound up at Georgia.
“Little did I know he was going to become our head coach,” Ledbetter said. “Honestly, that was one of the greatest moments of my life. It’s just kind of surreal to have him as my coach right now. Just the way it played out is crazy. When he first came (to Georgia), he told me, ‘I told you I was going to coach you!’ I hadn’t seen him in two years.”
That was a different Ledbetter back then. This one is better.