ATHENS – Last November, Georgia’s Natrez Patrick stood before reporters after the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta and talked about how thankful he was to be back with the team and able to go to battle with his teammates again. Eight days later, he was in the back of a police car in Winder and, for a short while at least, off the team again.
On Saturday, Patrick was playing linebacker again for the Bulldogs. It was his first action since being suspended last year at absolutely the worst time. He missed the College Football Playoff games against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl and Alabama in the National Championship Game.
His comments after the Bulldogs’ 45-0 win over Austin Peay sounded hauntingly similar to what he said after that 38-7 win over the Yellow Jackets last November.
“I just try to leave it all on the field for my guys,” said Patrick, who was not credited with any official stats in the game. “With all the work that we put in together, I know they do the same for me. So I just try to give my all for them on every play and leave it all on the field.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart has always maintained that Patrick’s discipline would be handled internally, and he had declined to say if or when Patrick might return since that incident after the SEC Championship win over Auburn last December. But it became evident right away in preseason camp that Patrick was again a part of the Bulldogs’ plans. He entered the game on Georgia’s first defensive series.
Patrick, speaking to reporters for the first time since last December, said he also hadn’t been sure if he would play for the Bulldogs again. But he said he started to have a pretty good idea he would play in this first game late this summer.
“It was probably around fall camp,” Patrick said. “It was after [summer] workouts. Just being in the rotation with the guys every day, I kind of had an idea.”
Patrick wasn’t the only one returning to action from the proverbial “dog house.” Sophomore defensive back Deangelo Gibbs also played for the first time since the eighth game last season. Gibbs withdrew from school for winter semester but re-enrolled this summer. He played extensively Saturday at star and safety.
Smart said he never specifically discussed with either player if they would play in Saturday’s opener.
“That was handled in the past,” he said. “So we didn’t have a monumental occasion or anything. We just communicated who’s up and rotated guys, and those guys served their discipline, served their punishment, prior to this.”
Patrick is a key component for the Bulldogs. He’s the only inside linebacker with significant starting experience. The 6-foot-3, 242 pound senior from Atlanta has started 18 games and played in 30 his first three seasons. And that’s after enduring three different disciplinary suspensions.
On Saturday, senior Juwan Taylor and sophomore Monty Rice started at the two inside positions. Patrick went in later in the first series and rotated regularly alongside junior Tae Crowder. Later, freshmen Channing Tindall and Quay Walker got some snaps.
But Patrick remains the clear leader of the group. And, despite his previous missteps, the linebackers look up to him.
“He’s a veteran; he’s started a lot of games around here,” Rice said of Patrick. “So it’s nice to have somebody like that who can correct me, somebody who’s older like him and JT who can help us make all those corrections.”
The Bulldogs limited Austin Peay to just 152 yards and seven first downs and, of course, shut them out. But like Smart, Patrick was talking about the corrections the Bulldogs need to make on defense.
“I feel like our guys played tough,” Patrick said. “There were a couple of keys we missed. But, for the most part I felt like our pursuit to the ball was good, which is a big part of being a linebacker. And the guys played tough. So I feel overall the guys did a good job, but there’s a lot to clean up on.”
As for that debacle that took place with Patrick and teammate Jayson Stanley in the early-morning hours after the Bulldogs’ victory over Auburn in the SEC title game, Patrick wasn’t interested in trying to explain what happened that night.
“No, sir. That’s in the past,” he said. “I’m just here to play football next to my brothers and I’m just happy to have this opportunity.”