Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree had for weeks tried to block out a nagging pain in his right foot, but the “pop” he said he felt during the Sept. 3 game against South Carolina was too intense to ignore.
The pain shot through him, and X-rays showed before the game was over that he had broken a bone. It hurt badly, he said, and the following six weeks were as emotionally painful for the sophomore as he rehabilitated the injury and could only look on as his teammates tried to rally from an 0-2 start to the season.
“When I first did it, I was devastated, actually,” Ogletree said. “I had never been injured to the point where I’m sidelined for a long period of time.”
More than a month after he last practiced, Ogletree was a welcome addition last week when he returned to practice with expectations to play against Florida on Oct. 29. He said his foot is “about 100 percent,” and the bye week has helped ease him back into the the flow of play. But the 6-foot-3 former Newnan High athlete said he expects returning against a major rival in a game that could play a crucial role in determining the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division standings to be a test.
“It’s going to be a little rough for me,” Ogletree said. “I’ve been out so long and am just trying to get my conditioning back and basically just play. Right now, I’m just trying to work on my conditioning and trying to jell back with the defense and trying to help out my team.”
The loss of Ogletree was a significant hit to a Georgia defense that appeared particularly inexperienced at the position at the start of the season, and it was especially frustrating after what Georgia coach Mark Richt said was an impressive preseason showing by Ogletree.
“He was practicing extremely well,” Richt said. “He is in the position that should be making plays. Our middle linebacker should make most of the tackles, and he was making most of the tackles and doing it with some enthusiasm and physicality, if that’s a word.”
Ogletree returned to practice this week where he left off, leading defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to say he was fired up just to see him on the field and drawing praise from Richt.
“I’m sure he is fresh and excited about playing,” Richt said. “I know he is excited about practicing. Of course, he likes football anyway, and he likes practice anyway, but he was a little more excited than normal.”
Six weeks ago, the defense was in a very different place. The loss of Ogletree had an impact, and an injury to junior linebacker Christian Robinson a week later against South Carolina gave Richt cause for concern. The coach said he would not have imagined Georgia in its current spot tied atop the Eastern Division and tied for the No. 24 spot in the Associated Press poll had he known about the injuries.
“If you told me that before the season began, I wouldn’t have predicted (being 5-2 overall),” Richt said. “We would have all been pretty nervous and sick about that.”
But Georgia has found an unexpected upside to the temporary absences of Ogletree and Robinson, though, as it has been able to develop depth at linebacker as the Bulldogs rotated in several young linebackers, most notably freshman Amarlo Herrera and junior Michael Gilliard.
Herrera had six tackles a game against Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee, and Gilliard was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after tallying a career-high 12 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, against Tennessee as well as a forced fumble, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup.
Knowing what he did about his backups, Ogletree had faith he would return to find the Bulldogs in good position.
“I knew that I had great confidence in the defense as far as backups and the ones that had been out there before,” Ogletree said. “I really expected what happened, what we’re getting now, as far as just that we were going to keep working and trying to get better.”