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Leading Man: Georgia senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter is a big reason the Bulldogs could once again "Own the East."

Own the East: Bulldogs look for Jonathan Ledbetter to lead on and off field

ATHENS – At the moment, there might not be a more beloved Bulldog than Jonathan Ledbetter. And Ledbetter feels the same way about Georgia.

Just listen to him describe the experience of playing for the Bulldogs on a Saturday in Athens:

“It’s unreal,” the senior defensive end from Atlanta said during SEC Football Media Days earlier this summer. “From waking up in the morning in the Georgia Center hotel to preparing during the pregame meal, there’s an aura that surrounds the whole day. The level of focus is something you can feel in the room. You get, like, little butterflies. Your skin starts tingling. You can feel and see the other guys are just as locked in as you. You’re going to go out there and give it everything you have for your brother.”

Such passion for his school has made Ledbetter one of the Bulldogs’ most respected leaders. It also speaks to the miles that he has traveled to get to where he is now.

Ledbetter is a starting defensive end and a team leader, on the field and in the locker room. He was among three student-athlete representatives to accompany coach Kirby Smart and serve as a spokesperson at SEC Media Days. But he has risen to this place of prominence just two years after being subjected to multiple suspensions and facing possible dismissal. Violations of Georgia’s conduct codes on alcohol and marijuana use kept getting Ledbetter in trouble.

Finally, he’d had enough and sought help. Ledbetter found it, and now is a changed man.

As it turns out, that has given him an even bigger platform from which to lead.

“I think our players recognize that when he speaks, he speaks from the heart,” Smart said. “They see how he works. They see what he’s been through.”

All that’s well and good. But at this point, Georgia just needs Ledbetter to play well. Barring injury, there’s no reason to think he won’t.

Ledbetter’s ability to play the game has never been in question. Despite playing just half-seasons his freshman and sophomore years, Ledbetter enters his senior season with 66 career tackles, 3.5 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.

He seems to come up big in Georgia’s biggest games. Last season, he had six tackles against both Florida and Oklahoma. Splitting time with junior David Marshall, Ledbetter started 11 of Georgia’s 15 games last year. It was the first year he played in every game from beginning to end.

Understandably, the Bulldogs hope to get even more out of Ledbetter this season. Though he carries 280 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, Ledbetter has gotten some work at outside linebacker during preseason camp. He has been known to shift inside as well and utilize his quickness against guards and centers.

The development of sophomore Malik Herring and the addition of graduate transfer Jay Hayes has left the Bulldogs with a lot of options on the line. Ledbetter is at the center of most of them.

All the possibilities excite Ledbetter. But the chance to repeat as SEC champions and return to the College Football Playoffs is his greatest motivator. It’s why he didn’t seriously consider and early exit to the NFL.

Ledbetter’s simply having too much fun now. And he’s sincerely grateful to still be doing what he loves.

“You just have to keep the faith,” Ledbetter said. “I went through a bunch of trials and tribulations and I just kept my head on and stayed prayed-up. I talked to God when I could, to Kirby when I could and to my family.

“All that stuff has just kept me grounded. It’s really cool to see how far I’ve come, but there’s really no looking back. I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it.”

The Georgia Bulldogs are glad Ledbetter is who he is. He’s another reason they could “Own the East.”