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UGA safety Richard LeCounte earns praise from analytics sites and draft scouts while occasionally hearing criticism from UGA fans.

Richard LeCounte is arguably one of college football’s most underrated players

Georgia football fans crave a national championship, and this season might be the year their wait comes to an end. However, the first step toward making that happen is for UGA coach Kirby Smart to lead the Bulldogs to a third-straight SEC East title. With that in mind, DawgNation is proud to present — in partnership with Georgia’s Own Credit Union — the “Own the East” series. A season preview content series focused on what it will take for UGA to dominate the division once again, and possibly return to the College Football Playoff.

Georgia safety Richard LeCounte hasn’t shied away from criticm. He’s willingly taken it head on, and used it as fuel to attempt to improve his game. However, perhaps too much attention has been paid to his perceived shortcomings at the expense of not noticing LeCounte’s true value to the UGA defense.

LeCounte led the Bulldogs with 15 missed tackles last season, and many of those were high-profile misses. For instance, UGA’s lackluster effort in the Sugar Bowl loss to Texas comes to mind.

LeCounte has readily admitted his role in some of the Bulldogs’ most disappointing performances in 2018.

“Last year we weren’t defensively the best all the time, and my missed tackles hurt the team,” LeCounte said. “I took that very personal. I also took a lot of those things that I did wrong, and I kind of blamed that on myself and made sure that… won’t be the case this year.”

LeCounte’s willingness to take responsibility for his actions is probably viewed as admirable by many UGA fans, and it’s likely spurred on by UGA coach Kirby Smart – who has seemingly challenged LeCounte to be the best he can be from the moment LeCounte arrived on campus as part of the 2017 recruiting class.

LeCounte doesn’t seem to mind being pushed by Smart and the other UGA coaches.

“I just take that as a stepping stone to be able to listen to criticism, listen to coaching,” LeCounte said. “I know at the end of the day it’s going to help me.”

LeCounte also knows that extra attention from coaches typically means they believe in the player.

“When somebody ignores you, you’re not in a really good spot,” LeCounte said. “I see that as coach giving me a chance and working with me, and I try my best to do more and being able to help the team.”

LeCounte seems to be responding well to the coaching. He’s seemingly worked hard to improve himself – including adding bulk.

“Definitely that was a point of emphasis during offseason training,” LeCounte said. “I tried to put on at least 15 pounds, being able to be more physical at the point of attack and tackling, going back to my fundamentals… being able to help the team.”

LeCounte noticed during spring practice that the hard work he put in during winter workouts was already paying off.

“I definitely feel better,” LeCounte said at the time. “I feel more confident in my strength and things like that because I know I’ve put in a lot of work to be able to change this problem I had last year.”

When LeCounte spoke on the subject again during the early portion of summer practices he went into more detail about how being in better shape will help him improve.

“I feel a lot stronger going in there with those big ole’ hogs,” LeCounte said. “I have a lot of confidence in my tackling ability now, and also I’m ready to attack the ball more, and get a lot more pass deflections – which our team needs.”

LeCounte’s quest will be justifiably lauded, but it also comes with the potential side effect of creating a public perception problem.

In other words, LeCounte might be so open about the areas he wants to be better that it distracts from the areas he’s already quite good.

For instance, while it’s true LeCounte led the Bulldogs in missed tackles in 2018, he also led the team with 74 total tackles –including 22 of what Pro Football Focus defines as “defensive stops.”

According to Pro Football Focus, a “defensive stop” is “a play where a defender makes a tackle, and the location of the tackle means the play is a successful one for the defense.” For instance, a tackle on third or fourth down that prevents a first down or a touchdown would be considered a defensive stop.

LeCounte’s 22 “stops” suggests he was often doing more for the UGA defense than was noticed by fans.

That was possibly true in pass coverage as well.

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has called LeCounte the best safety in pass coverage of any who’ll be eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft. Miller has also rated him third-best safety prospect overall.

If that rating holds true this season, LeCounte will have a chance to sneak into the first round next spring if he decides to leave UGA early.

Of course, draft projections – especially ones made nearly a year in advance – can be erratic, but the point is there are plenty of observations regarding LeCounte that place him among the top players at his position – despite some fans’ occasional assumptions to the contrary.

Yet 2019 could be the year for LeCounte when all doubters are silenced.

The hard work he’s committed himself to could prove beneficial when the season starts, and not just for LeCounte, but the entire UGA defense as well.

“I want to do everything I can for this team,” LeCounte said. “As a guy that’s been here going on my third year, I have to step up to the plate, and I have to put a lot of things to the side and focus on football.”

A new “focus” from LeCounte coupled with a beefed-up frame could truly be a weapon for the Bulldogs defense, and it might lead to a boosted reputation for him among UGA fans to match the credit he’s already received from some in the national media.