Few Georgia safeties have made an impact as true freshmen under coach Mark Richt, apart from occasional work on special teams.
Alec Ogletree is one exception to that trend, which comes as little surprise given the ballyhoo that accompanied his signing with the Bulldogs in February.
Ogletree – who ranked among the nation’s top 40 overall 2010 prospects according to both Rivals and Scout.com – earned Southeastern Conference All-Freshman honors after playing his way into the starting lineup late in the season.
“I wanted to come in and play. But as far as starting, I was really looking more at just getting some playing time,” Ogletree admitted.
Ogletree didn’t appear in three of Georgia’s first four games – one of which he missed while serving a disciplinary suspension – but he came on to play in each of the Bulldogs’ last eight contests.
He has started each of the last three games and ranks 12th on the team with 29 tackles entering the Bulldogs’ Liberty Bowl appearance against Central Florida on New Year’s Eve.
“As far as coming in and learning the speed of the game and learning this new defense, it was kinda tough with all the calls and stuff,” Ogletree said. “Every day we just worked at it, so it got better over time.”
While it’s common for a freshman to struggle in making the transition from high school, the Newnan native managed it better than most.
“Early on I think he still had that mindset that he had in high school, kinda like, ‘the man.’ And then throughout the season, he realized that he had to work a little harder to make plays and get to where he used to be,” Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “He did that really quick and caught on and now he’s starting and out there making plays and contributing.
“He definitely has a really bright future. There’s a reason he was so highly regarded out of high school.”
Part of the acclaim that surrounded Ogletree as a prospect stemmed from his hitting ability. Some talent evaluators thought Ogletree’s college position might be linebacker precisely because of his ability to deliver a big hit.
That talent has not gone unnoticed in Athens.
“We see it in practice every day,” senior inside linebacker Akeem Dent said. “He has good size and good ball skills and he also comes down and he’ll meet a guy in the hole. When he puts his pads on you, he’ll try to knock you out.”
That big-hit ability has many on the team predicting Ogletree might be the next player to carry on the tradition of outstanding safety play that marked the early days of Richt’s tenure, when players like Sean Jones, Thomas Davis and Greg Blue earned all-America honors.
“I think he’s gonna be one of those guys, especially with (defensive coordinator Todd) Grantham here and the defensive scheme that we run,” Dent said. “Next year, him and (fellow starting safety Bacarri) Rambo, they might be two of the top safeties out there. I think he’s gonna develop well and just turn into one of those top safeties in the nation.”
Ogletree’s transition to reliable veteran remains far from complete, however, and the Bulldogs’ loss to top-ranked Auburn serves as a perfect example of why.
Making his second career start, Ogletree tied for second on the team with 10 tackles, including seven solo stops. However, he also was twice beaten in pass coverage for touchdowns.
Ogletree realizes he has plenty of work left to do to become the defensive force his blue-chip status predicted. But now that he’s had a year of seasoning, and now that his defensive mates have had a year under first-year coordinator Grantham’s 3-4 pressure scheme, Ogletree believes he and Georgia’s defense will make big strides in 2011.
“We really just want to be a better overall defense than we were this year,” he said. “We were pretty good, but you knew we could be a whole lot better. Next year, we’ll be playing a whole lot faster than we were this year.
“That’s basically all it was this year. We were trying to learn what to do and I’m thinking next year we’ll be much faster and more prepared.”