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Richard LeCounte has been a key piece of the Georgia program.

Why the University of Georgia loves Richard LeCounte as much as he loves it

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Georgia football loves Richard LeCounte as much as he loves the school

It is not yet known if senior defensive back Richard LeCounte will get to play in Sanford Stadium one last time.

The All-SEC defensive back hasn’t played since Oct. 31 due to injuries sustained following a traffic accident. Kirby Smart provided a vague update on LeCounte’s status on Wednesday.

“He’s been out in practice and been able to run and do some things yesterday,” Smart said. “He still has not had contact, but we are working on rehabbing him and getting him back.”

Even if LeCounte were able to play, this is not the ending imagine for a player that has meant so much to the Georgia program.

The Riceboro, Ga., native has been a team captain, a vocal leader and the first recruit to commit Kirby Smart back in December of 2015. He helped lead the Bulldogs to three straight SEC East titles while playing on teams that won the SEC championship and Rose Bowl.

He brought so much to this team, his teammates and the school as a whole.

“He has been so loyal to Georgia in an era when that’s not normal,” Smart said. “It’s normal to de-commit, move here, decide late. He committed early, he was a great player and he stayed an extra year for his senior year.”

Smart still recalls the first time he met LeCounte back when LeCounte was either an eighth or ninth-grader. The latter was on a visit to Alabama with his Liberty County High School teammate Raekwon McMillan. While McMillan, a 5-star linebacker who went on to play at Ohio State and now plays for the Oakland Raiders, was the main priority, Smart pretty quickly picked up on the infectious personality LeCounte had.

LeCounte’s high school coach, Kirk Warner, also noticed LeCounte’s vibe and energy the first time he saw him as well.

“There’s that aura about him and that leadership quality,” Warner said. “He pretty much then backed it up on the football field.”

LeCounte went on to shine on both the football field and basketball court at Liberty County. His future was obviously in football as his athleticism helped him become a 5-star prospect, the first of many Smart landed as Georgia’s head coach.

Related: Kirby Smart lands a 5-star with his first UGA commitment in Richard LeCounte

Before he put on a Georgia jersey, LeCounte helped improve the Georgia program. He was one of the key architects of the 2017 recruiting class that included the likes of D’Andre Swift, Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson. Much like he was on the football field, LeCounte was a vocal leader and recruiter for the class.

LeCounte, on two separate occasions, even donned a Santa suit for commitment videos for Jeremiah Holloman, Malik Herring and Nate McBride.

“He just inspires me to be great,” Herring said of his teammate. “He just brought smiles and laughs to everybody.”

Teammates describe LeCounte as vocal and energetic both on and off the football field. As a safety, those are obviously key traits to have when you have to make sure teammates are lined up properly.

But they’re great qualities to have as well when it comes to interacting with people outside of the game.

LeCounte’s energy even gets the normally reserved Monty Rice to come out of his shell.

“It’s been good to be around him because I know when I first got to Georgia, I didn’t talk to a lot of people at all,” Rice said. “I stick to the people I know. I opened up to Rich and him and Malik (Herring) were kind of like the first people that I meshed with here.

“I’m thankful for him. He’ll be a lifelong friend.”

It wasn’t until LeCounte’s sophomore season that he emerged as a starter for the Georgia secondary. But he got better as a player every year, long ago putting to rest the doubts about his tackling abilities or how he’d manage in coverage.

LeCounte ended his junior season leading the SEC in fumble recoveries and finished second in interceptions. He played the best game of his Georgia career in a Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, as he intercepted two passes in a 28-14 win. It would’ve been easy for him to bounce and head to the NFL as Swift, Thomas and Wilson all did.

Related: Georgia safety Richard LeCounte announces he’s returning for senior season

But LeCounte felt he had more to accomplish. He wanted to bring a national championship back to Georgia. He ultimately elected to return for his senior season.

He started his senior season much like he ended his junior campaign. He intercepted two passes in the season-opening win over Arkansas and went on to pick off another pass against Alabama. For all the struggles Georgia has had against the Crimson Tide, LeCounte did have an interception in the two games he started against Alabama. At this point in his career, it’s fair to wonder what would’ve happened had he been playing safety in the 2018 National Championship game loss to Alabama.

In a win over Kentucky, he racked up a career-best 13 tackles while also having three pass break-ups and a fumble recovery. He was playing how 5-star safeties and First Team All-SEC players should.

Then came the traffic accident that slammed his —and Georgia’s— season to a halt.

In the hours after returning from the win over Kentucky, LeCounte was riding on a dirt-bike when he struck a car that was turning into a gas station. After making contact with the car, LeCounte was thrown from his dirt bike and hit by a second car.

LeCounte sustained some bruised ribs, a shoulder injury, a concussion as well as some scrapes and bruises. The recovery process hasn’t been speedy but LeCounte is expected to fully recover from those injuries.

Related:  Richard LeCounte released from hospital, rehabbing in football building

In the first game without LeCounte, the Georgia defense struggled as it gave up 38 first-half points to Florida. The Bulldogs went on to lose 44-28, all but extinguishing the title hopes that LeCounte hoped to fulfill.

It would’ve been easy for LeCounte to opt-out of the season after the game, given the injuries, his draft status and the fact that it has become commonplace around the sport. Just this week Kentucky and LSU have had players do just that to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft.

LeCounte though once again showed his loyalty to the Georgia program by making a public declaration that he wouldn’t do that. He wanted to finish out the season helping out his teammates, his brothers, in any way he can.

“Ever since I’ve been starting in his place, he’s been giving me good tips and things like that,” LeCounte’s replacement Christopher Smith said. “If he sees something, when I come back on the sideline he’s going to give me a pointer. And I’m going to go out and use that to get better on the next drive.”

Prior to the South Carolina win, Smart commented that Georgia really missed the confidence that LeCounte brought to the defense, in addition to his talents as a safety.

Even with LeCounte helping from the sidelines, the Georgia defense just hasn’t been the same. It’s one thing to replace what he does as a player, but what he brought to the team as a person has been far more beneficial to the Georgia program.

“He brings a whole lot of juice to the defense,” safety Lewis Cine said. “For one, I’m really, really waiting for the day that he can come back. Hopefully, that’s very soon. We love Richard, and that’s what we’re missing.”

Related: What Georgia football misses the most without Richard LeCounte

The coming game against Vanderbilt should in all likelihood be LeCounte’s final game in Sanford Stadium. He has the potential to come back again due to NCAA rule changes, but he’s already put the NFL off once before.

LeCounte’s former coach understands what Saturday figures to be like for the star safety, as Warner was a tight end at Georgia from 1985-89. He knows what it’s like to hear your name over the Sanford Stadium speaks and think back about your Georgia career.

Warner said it’s a happy and sad moment. But for a player like LeCounte, the highs deserve to far outweigh the lows of his Georgia career.

“He’s always represented himself in a class manner,” Warner said of LeCounte. “That’s just the type of kid Richard is. that’s how his mom and his dad raised him. Just an A1, class-act person.”

Smart gets that too as he was once safety and leader of the Georgia program.  LeCounte was the first high school prospect to believe in Smart as a head coach and decided to commit to playing for Smart just days after he became the head coach.

LeCounte helped elevate the Georgia program and left it in a better place than when he arrived in January of 2017.

Through it all, LeCounte has kept that same energy, smile and personality that left an impression on Smart all those years ago.

“He loves the University of Georgia,” Smart said. “That makes somebody special and people will remember that for the rest of his life.” 

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