ATHENS — Nine. Four. One.
In chronological order from his redshirt freshman year until now, that’s the number of games Justin Young has appeared in with the Georgia Bulldogs each of the last three seasons.
It’s supposed to trend in the other direction.
It looks like it finally will this season. Young, a senior defensive end from Loganville, is not about to assume anything though. Not after all he’s been through the last four-plus years. But as the Bulldogs head into Saturday’s G-Day Game, Young is slated as their No. 1 defensive end.
“It feels good to be considered as a leader,” said Young, speaking to reporters Tuesday for the first time since his freshman year. “I’ve been working hard this whole spring. I’m still trying to work my way up from the 3s to the 1s. I still consider myself a 3, but right now I’m with the 1s. I’m just trying to work hard every day and give it all I have.”
Hearing that, I lot of Georgia fans might crack, “I didn’t know he was still on the team.” It’d be understandable you did.
Between injuries, depth and competition, Young’s role had dissipated to the point of being invisible. First, he played the position occupied by Jonathan Ledbetter and David Marshall the last three seasons. Second, every time he started to assert himself, it seemed an injury would arise. An ankle injury sidelined him at the end of preseason camp last season. A knee sprain took him out of spring practice last April. Similar sideline stints have come and gone since he arrived as a Mark Richt recruit in 2015.
Considering the expanse of time that has passed, it’s hard to remember that Young had the same number of sacks his senior year at Grayson High — 20 — as D’Andre Walker.
That he hasn’t been able come close to replicating that kind of production in four years at Georgia is not something for which Young apologizes.
“It’s a transition coming from high to the SEC, for sure,” said Young, who has eight career tackles to date. “It’s a big transition. But you’ve just got to work hard every day, come in with the right attitude and just, well, work hard.”
Young says those two words a lot, “work hard.” They are at this point the cornerstone of existence now at Georgia. Long before transfer portals were a thing, Young contemplated pulling up stakes and pursuing his football dreams elsewhere. But he says that notion has passed now.
Young has committed to seeing his career through at Georgia, regardless of where his name appears on the depth chart.
“I was in the portal last summer,” said Young, even though there wasn’t a portal last summer. “But I told myself, ‘this is my third semester here; I’m gonna try to get my degree.’ I’m going to stick it out here and whether I get to play or not, no matter what happens, I’m still going to be a Dawg no matter what. No, I’m going to be here for sure.”
Young credits his faith for reaching that conclusion. With the help of his father, Young said he recommitted himself spiritually. That has given him peace about the daily grind of athletic competition.
“I’ve gotten more close to God, and He’s helping me a lot,” Young said. “I’ve been getting into the Word. My Dad has been getting into it as well. He’s been sending me a personal Bible verse every day. I’m trying to stay positive and that’s actually helping me a lot (with) transitioning from last year not playing to this year where I’m trying to play some more.”
About this, Young’s coaches and teammates are thrilled. They know the travails he’s been through and appreciate what it takes to persevere.
“JY is a walking testimony,” junior safety Richard LeCounte said. “You know, all the things that went wrong, injuries, things out of his control, that happened to him, for a guy to still be here swinging at it, still chomping at the bit trying to get what he could, it’s paying off now.”
Attrition has aided Young’s recent ascent. Marshall, a rising senior with 32 games under his belt, is the most experienced and successful D-end on the roster. But he remains sidelined while recovering from foot surgery midseason last year.
Then there is junior Malik Harring, who has played in 29 games his two short seasons with 30 tackles and 1.5 sacks, and sophomore transfer Tramel Walthour. So far this spring Young has managed to stay a step ahead of both.
“Justin has done a good job,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He’s an experienced player, he’s put a lot of work in, he’s put a lot of work in the weight room. Justin is lunch-pail guy. He’s hard to move, he plays with toughness and he plays hard. Uusually when you’ve got a guy whose in his fifth year in the program that’s usually what you get. He knows what to expect and he’s played really hard.”
Young is taking no solace in any of that. He’s a veteran of these annual in-house competitions, and he knows a host of elite defensive linemen will join the party this summer. Signees Zion Logue, Tymon Mitchell, Bill Norton and Travon Walker will all enroll this summer.
“I’m just working hard,” he says, using those two words again. “I’m trying to get to that starting role, so I’m just trying to give extra effort, stay up in the playbook, know my plays, and just give it all I have.”