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Richard LeCounte will be a leader for Georgia in 2020.

Richard LeCounte is the face of the Georgia football program for the 2020 season

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Richard LeCounte is the face of the Georgia football program for the 2020 season

Richard LeCounte’s most recent football game was also his best as a Georgia Bulldog. He picked off two passes for Georgia in its 26-14 win over the Baylor Bears, and was the clear leader of the defensive group with J.R. Reed missing the contest due to an injury.

If it were to be his final game as a Bulldog, it would’ve made sense. His NFL draft stock likely would’ve been at an all-time high, and given a number of his 2017 signees such as Andrew Thomas, Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift were jumping to the NFL, one could understand why LeCounte would head to the league.

But LeCounte didn’t. He opted to stay and return for his senior year. Shortly after, fellow defenders like Eric Stokes, Monty Rice and Malik Herring followed LeCounte’s lead and announced they would be returning for Georgia’s 2020 season as well.

While the offense will be undergoing a transformation, the defense figures to be stout once again if not even better as players like Travon Walker, Nolan Smith and Nakobe Dean get another full offseason in the system.

Defense will once again be Georgia’s calling card in 2020. And LeCounte will be the face of both the group and the entire Georgia program.

RelatedWith Richard LeCounte returning, Kirby Smart might have his best secondary yet

LeCounte somewhat explained his process for returning on Twitter this week. He didn’t return to improve his draft stock or even to chase accolades and records.

He posted a simple video of Athens on a fall Saturday and all that it had to offer. Something that can’t truly be replicated in New England, Dallas or Minnesota.

LeCounte has never been afraid to lead. Of all the recruits and players to sign up for Kirby Smart and what he was bringing to Georgia, LeCounte was the first one to do so. He did so just a week after Smart was announced as the Bulldogs head coach.

For the 2017 recruiting class, he became a vocal proponent for Georgia. He was more instrumental than perhaps any other recruit under Smart in a Georgia recruiting class, which finished No. 3 overall class in 2017. The class was comprised mostly of the top talents in the state of Georgia. The Bulldogs landed 12 of the top 20 prospects in the state of Georgia for 2017, with LeCounte — from Riceboro, Ga., — being the top-ranked player in the state to sign with Georgia that year.

He played sparingly as a freshman on the 2017 team that came within a few plays of winning the national title. As a sophomore, he stepped into the starting line-up and at times showed why he was rated as a 5-star prospect. But he also had issues with his tackling at times and the Georgia defense took a step back in 2018.

As a junior, he improved once again. He posted a career-best four interceptions, upped his tackles for loss to 4.5 while breaking up three passes and forcing two fumbles. He became an impact safety for Georgia while the Bulldogs also had the nation’s top-scoring defense and gave up the fewest number of plays over 10-yards per game. And that factors in having to play the explosive LSU offense.

Reed deserves as much credit for those team stats while he also served as the vocal leader for the Bulldogs in 2019. Replacing him in 2020 will be no easy task, as he was a three-year starter for the Bulldogs.

Stepping in for Reed next year will likely be sophomore Lewis Cine. He flashed at times this past season, much like a young LeCounte did but it’s a big jump to go from role player to starter in the Georgia defense. And it will be on LeCounte to have him, and the rest of the secondary and defense, lined up.

That is one of the many aspects of being a leader. And it’s something Kirby Smart likely has been prepping LeCounte for since he committed to the Georgia program.

Related: Richard LeCounte assuming on leadership role: ‘It’s something bigger than football’

At times, Smart has been publicly critical of LeCounte, more so than any other player on the Georgia roster. This past spring, Smart called out LeCounte publicly in a press conference.

“As far as Richard, it’s been inconsistent. He still doesn’t know his assignments in and out,” Smart said. “I think he’d be the first to tell you, we’re trying to train him at left and right safety where he’s only played free safety before. That’s for his development and growth.”

More than anyone, Smart understands the pressures and responsibilities of being a Georgia safety given he played the position. He wouldn’t be challenging LeCounte if he didn’t think his rising senior safety could handle it.

And LeCounte responded with poise and maturity, recognizing Georgia has to get better.

“Every day there’s something that I need to learn, no matter what position that I’m in,” LeCounte said. “If I run out of things to learn, I won’t be a great football player because every day you should try to do something better as a person. I just take that as a stepping stone to be able to listen to criticism, listen to coaching because I know at the end of the day, it’s going to help me and it’s going to help my team.”

Had Fromm or Swift come back for the 2020 season, they almost certainly would’ve been the public faces and clear leaders of this team. But they’re not. That responsibility falls on LeCounte.

And like an errant pass or unsuspecting wide receiver, he’ll be ready for it and likely do exactly what Georgia needs him to do.

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