ATHENS — Richard LeCounte was back to competing on the football field at Georgia on Wednesday, looking more and more like the star player many remember, but not quite yet back to 100 percent.
LeCounte’s average time in the 40-dash at the Georgia Pro Day was 4.79 seconds (4.76, 4.82), notably off the 4.4 speed projected by those who watched him develop into one of the best safeties in the nation.
“I definitely could have done better, there’s always room for improvement, but I think I lit it up in the drills and did what I had to do there,” said LeCounte, a former All-American who appears to be in the final stages of recovering from the injuries he sustained in a Halloween Night dirt bike accident that essentially ended his senior season.
Georgia also had four players injured in the game against Kentucky, which led into the Florida rivalry this season.
Without LeCounte, UGA was not the same team, and Florida exploited that with a wheel route the Bulldogs’ star safety would surely have helped his teammates adjust to.
LeCounte is not only a high IQ football player, he’s also cat quick with catch-up speed when he needs it, even if he has yet to regain all of it.
“I’m pretty sure that I could have definitely run faster, or just some minor things I can tweak to get that time down,” LeCounte said. “But I’m not going to worry about that, I’m going to worry about getting on the squad and playing ball.”
LeCounte has been on the field for the Bulldogs since his freshman season, and he’s a clear favorite of Coach Kirby Smart, who works closely with the safeties.
As big as Pro Day was for LeCounte — he skipped the Senior Bowl, presumably on account of his injuries — Smart’s mind went somewhere else when asked about the former 5-star recruit.
“Richard’s story is very special; there was a time we weren’t sure that he was going to come back and play,” Smart said on Wednesday. “And there were a few minutes where I didn’t know what happened.
“It was a scary moment that makes you realize there’s a lot more to life than just football.”
LeCounte was struck by an oncoming vehicle while riding a dirt bike on Macon Highway shortly after the team returned from a road game at Kentucky that LeCounte had dominated, making a career-high 13 tackles with 3 pass breakups.
The Georgia star lay motionless on the pavement, knocked unconscious by the force of the accident. A nearby spectator videos the scene of bystanders stopping to provide aid, the ambulance speeding to the scene as darkness closed in.
“It was definitely tough knowing I was going to have to miss some time and miss some games my senior season,” LeCounte recalled. “But every day I was rehabbing …. mentally, I had to fight my way through it.”
LeCounte confirmed on Wednesday what most suspected: Every NFL team has an interest in what happened that night.
“Pretty much, they asked about it, but I told the truth, how it really happened,” LeCounte said without going into further detail. “They heard me out, and we moved forward.”
Moving forward meant lots of rehab and a return to the practice field, even though LeCounte was nowhere near ready to play at any point in the regular season.
LeCounte indicated a foot injury proved the biggest hurdle, which would explain why he couldn’t replicate the 4.43-second time in the 40 he ran at Liberty County High School.
“(Just) rehabbing my foot, getting it back to me putting my weight on there, and getting back into the tip-top shape I was in before the wreck,” said LeCounte, who had three interceptions through the first five games of the season.
LeCounte wasn’t ready for a full return to action when the team played in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, but Smart rewarded him by allowing him to be on the field for the final snap.
It was a memory LeCounte said will always be special to him.
“Just being in Mercedes-Benz Dome one last time was a blessing,” LeCounte said. “That shows the type of passion I have for this game, and I can’t give up on my team, because they never gave up on me.
“For Coach Smart to give me that last play, that meant everything to me.”
LeCounte will remain a fan-favorite, his many great plays and moments at Georgia permanently etched in the collective mind of DawgNation.
A return to full speed remains a work in progress, but the charisma and personality that makes LeCounte a special leader and locker room presence is back, and the instincts never left him.
“You knew he had limitations in his speed work,” SEC analyst Roman Harper said. “But he has great instincts which allow you to play faster, and he has great ball skills.
“(LeCounte) is going to get you turnovers, and you like that part of his game more than just his numbers in the 40.”