ATLANTA — Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter sat in a chair on the floor of Philips Arena on Saturday morning, soaking up the scene at media day two days before the Bulldogs would play Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“It’s a treasure,” Ledbetter said. “This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”
Ledbetter, a junior from Tucker, Georgia, might appreciate what has transpired for the Bulldogs over the past five weeks more than most of his teammates. More than a year ago, he nearly threw his football career away.
Around 5:30 a.m. on July 10, 2016, Athens-Clarke County police officers responded to calls of a car blocking an intersection not far from the UGA campus. Officers spent 20 minutes trying to wake up Ledbetter, who was asleep behind the wheel of that car. They banged on his window, shook the car and even turned on the siren of one their police cruisers. Finally, they used a “lock jack” to open the car’s door and wake him.
Ledbetter, who was 19 at the time, failed two sobriety tests and was arrested for DUI and underage possession. Officers said his blood-alcohol content was between .131 and .138. It was his second alcohol-related arrest — he’d been arrested for underage possession of alcohol and possession of a fake ID in March 2016; those charges were later dismissed — and Ledbetter feared he’d be kicked off the UGA football team and expelled from school.
According to the incident report, Ledbetter told police officers at the scene that he did “not need to get into any more trouble because he is going to get kicked off of the team and that he needs to provide for his mother and family.”
When Ledbetter met with Georgia coach Kirby Smart the next day, he was surprised by what he heard.
“Look, I’m going to do what I can,” Smart told him, according to Ledbetter. “I can’t make any promises. I want you to know that I don’t need you, but I want you here. We’ve got to get this right.”
A few days later, Georgia athletic department officials announced that Ledbetter was being disciplined and was also entering an intensified education, counseling and medical assistance program. He was allowed to take a temporary leave of absence from the team to enroll in an alcohol assessment program.
“We need to try to save them. We need to try to help them,” Smart said. “We have kids on our team that are going to make mistakes, and to throw them to the wind and throw them back to society is not the way to go.”
After two strikes, it was Ledbetter’s last chance to get his life in order.
“I came into college at 17 years old,” Ledbetter said. “I was a young cat playing football and enjoying the college life. I was trying to do everything and never wanted to miss out. If you’re a kid who came from where I came from, you really didn’t see a lot of things you see in college for the first time. A lot of guys are like that. It’s definitely a transition and some guys don’t know how to adapt. It’s hard to adapt.”
Ledbetter, who had four tackles in seven games as a freshman in 2015, was ultimately suspended for the first six games of the 2016 season, which was the specified punishment under the Georgia Athletic Association’s drug and alcohol policy. When Ledbetter finally returned in the Bulldogs’ 17-16 loss to Vanderbilt on Oct. 15, 2016, he was a different player than before.
“I was working twice as hard, working out three or four times a week,” Ledbetter said. “It was a period for me to enhance every single skill in my body and my mental [state]. I really came back stronger from it because I put in so much work during that time.”
Ledbetter finished his sophomore season with 24 tackles and five quarterback hurries in seven games. This season, he has started 11 of Georgia’s 14 games at defensive end. Georgia’s defense is designed for linemen to take on blocks to free up linebackers to make plays. Ledbetter has 35 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and seven quarterback hurries.
In last week’s 54-48 victory over Oklahoma in a CFP semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual, Ledbetter made two key stops that helped Georgia come back from a 17-point deficit. After the Bulldogs fell behind 31-17 at the half, Ledbetter stopped receiver Marquise Brown one yard short of a first down on the Sooners’ opening possession of the second half. On OU’s next drive, Ledbetter and D’Andre Walker sacked Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield on consecutive plays to force another punt.
Georgia’s defense made stops on Oklahoma’s first five possessions of the second half, allowing the Bulldogs to storm back and take a 38-31 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“I’m really proud of Led,” Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. “He’s done a really good job and become one of our leaders. I look to him to lead. He’s matured and plays well for us. I think his best football is still ahead of him.”
Ledbetter has also become one of the emotional leaders of Georgia’s defense. Smart said he has even called on Ledbetter to advise and mentor younger players who might need guidance.
“He’s been through some trials and tribulations that I think have allowed him to grow further as a player,” Smart said. “Maybe if he doesn’t go through those, he’s maybe still on that course. He’s been able to impart some of his experiences to the younger players. We have him talk to guys about the pitfalls and traps that are all over colleges. He uses his experience to maybe keep one of them from going through those experiences.”
At Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night, only 20 miles from his hometown, Ledbetter will try to help Georgia win its first national championship in 37 years. Regardless of what happens against the Crimson Tide, he’s thankful Smart didn’t give up on him.
“I reflect every day,” Ledbetter said. “I’m just thankful for the blessing I have. Not everybody gets this opportunity. I’m just so grateful that I was able to open my eyes to it, and I realize how blessed I am.”