Georgia defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter began the 2016 football season serving a six-game suspension.
He has started his final spring with the Bulldogs as an unquestioned leader on a roster in need of guidance following the departures of several successful veterans from last season's Southeastern Conference championship team. Ledbetter was arrested twice on alcohol-related charges two years ago, but he doesn't shy from his troubled times as he seeks to continue the energy and momentum that developed last season.
"They say you lead through experience," Ledbetter said this week in a news conference. "I had an experience when I first got here, and that kind of helps me talk to people. I can communicate with people, and I can feel what people are going through.
"I can relate to them, because I've gone through things."
The 6-foot-4, 277-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Tucker is coming off a junior season in which he made 38 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. Ledbetter's most memorable performance may have occurred in the 54-48, double-overtime triumph over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl, when he helped the Bulldogs rally from a 17-point deficit by harassing Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield throughout much of the second half.
Ledbetter had six tackles and an 8-yard sack on New Year's Day, but it's his overcoming of past obstacles that has led coach Kirby Smart to make the former top-100 national prospect a face of the program without any hesitation.
"I feel like he's at a good place," Smart said this week. "He's become a vocal leader on our team. He's a guy who when he speaks, people listen. They listen to people who have had hard times and fell on hard times. He can speak on an experience that not all of our players can speak on.
"He's been through some really tough times and has certainly changed the narrative to his story to this point. I think how this season goes and how he finishes up his Bulldog career will speak volumes to who he is as a person. He can have a great impact on this team."
After playing in seven games as a freshman on Mark Richt's final squad, Ledbetter was arrested in March 2016 for underage possession and possessing false identification at an Athens bar. That case was dropped when prosecutors elected not to pursue charges, but he was arrested again in July of that year for driving under the influence and underage possession.
In that incident, which also occurred in Athens, Ledbetter was discovered actually sleeping at the wheel of his car, which was still running and was blocking traffic at a stoplight. He was dropped from Georgia's official 125-player roster and began a substance-abuse treatment program for what Smart described as "a serious problem."
Ledbetter wound up rejoining team practices that August and served the six-game suspension before returning against Vanderbilt, when he quickly displayed his talents with four tackles. He wound up starting four of the final six games that season.
His troubling 2016 was somewhat matched last year by fellow 2015 Atlanta-area signee Natrez Patrick, an inside linebacker who started seven games a season ago but was arrested twice on marijuana-related charges, suspended twice and entered a treatment program. Patrick was suspended for the Rose Bowl but was on the team for the national championship game against Alabama, and Smart said this week that Patrick continues to do what is asked of him.
"We try to help each other," Ledbetter said. "He was my rock, and I was his rock for a while. We both fell off for a second, and he's back where he needs to be."
Ledbetter enters this season with a different background compared to some of the leaders of last year's 13-2 team. Former running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel overcame injuries but were never known for poor off-the-field decisions, and there were no incidents of running astray with Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter or Isaiah Wynn, either.
That's not the case with Ledbetter, who is using his past to make the most of the present and the future for him as well as others.
"I would definitely say that it's been a journey," he said. "I came here as a really young guy and had to work my way up and fight for my spot and take my role. Now I'm one of the older guys on the team.
"Being a leader is tough sometimes, because you have to get on the younger guys, but the most important thing is to lead by example."
Odds and ends
The Bulldogs held their second of 15 spring practices Thursday, working out for more than two hours in helmets and shorts. ... Freshman running back Zamir White, who tore his ACL last fall in the North Carolina state playoffs, is going through limited portions of practice wearing a knee brace.
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.