A number of former Bulldogs were on the sidelines on Monday night cheering on their alma mater. Players who were with Kirby Smart from his first day as the head coach of the program.
Guys like Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb and Richard LeCounte, who first-hand built the culture at Georgia that allowed the current players to win 33-18 against Alabama. Many of those same players who were also a part of the 26-23 loss to Alabama in the 2018 National Championship Game.
There was also one current Georgia player who was with Smart and the 2016 Georgia team that was in pads on Monday night. That would be defensive tackle Julian Rochester.
Rochester actually committed to play for Mark Richt as a member of the 2016 recruiting class. Even after the coaching change, he stuck with his commitment to Smart and the Georgia program.
Georgia then stuck with Rochester as he battled multiple knee injuries that sidelined him during the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Like the Bulldogs on Monday night though, Rochester battled back and was able to finish strong. He played in the win, in what might have been his final game as a Georgia Bulldog. He didn’t have a tackle in the game but based on what teammates have had to say about “Uncle Julian” his impact on this team extends far beyond the stat sheet.
“To see him overcome so many injuries – and he wasn’t a major impact on the game, but he impacted his room,” Smart said. “He impacted Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Devonte, Wyatt, because they wanted it for him. And when you want it for people in the room, it makes it a lot more special.”
Related: Kirby Smart, Vince Dooley and the importance of understanding Georgia football history
Rochester was the only top-100 defensive player Georgia signed in that first 2016 recruiting class. This Georgia defense, which is undoubtedly one of the best of the modern era, is now flooded with players of his ilk.
The knee injuries prevented Rochester from reaching his ceiling as a player. Perhaps it’s better to celebrate Rochester and his journey to this point. It fits with all the ups and downs Georgia has gone through under Smart’s tenure.
The stops and starts, the high of the 2017 season followed by the crushing loss in the title game. Rochester’s personal nadir came in the 2020 season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Kentucky. The next week, Georgia lost to Florida and the Bulldogs felt miles away from winning a championship.
Undeterred, Rochester kept working. He took advantage of the NCAA offering an extra year of eligibility. He rehabbed hard and got himself on the field for Georgia’s final seven games of the 2021 season.
That included the SEC championship game defeat to Alabama. One final setback that made Monday night all the more special.
“Julian Rochester, being along with any of us on this team, and I could just see the emotion in his face,” linebacker Nakobe Dean said. “Just seeing him just like was a representation of everything that I’d done it for, all the fans, all my brothers that I love, my family, everybody from back at home, all the kids looking up to us. Just seeing it – yeah, go Dawgs.”