2nd-leading SEC tackler following return from injury
By FLETCHER PAGE
ATHENS, Ga. — When a toe injury sidelined senior linebacker Akeem Dent in July, he quickly rattled through a terrifying round of questions and possibilities.
When could he play again? Would he make it back in time for the season opener? Could he cope with missing preseason practice?
“I didn’t know if I was going to miss the first game, the first two games or what,” Dent said.
Now that Dent is second in the SEC in tackles, those doubts and questions have been erased. The injury may have coerced the most beneficial few weeks in Dent’s progression as a Georgia defender.
“Obviously, he was disappointed he didn’t get a chance to go through fall camp,” linebackers coach Warren Belin said. “It may have been a blessing for him, because of the time and effort he put in to prepare himself as a linebacker and to learn the system better. He went overboard in preparing himself.”
Sidelined for almost a month, Dent put himself through a rigorous mental training workout.
In reality, Dent was a fifth-year player who already had run the gauntlet of early-morning weight-lifting sessions and afternoon practices. He already had done everything pertaining to physical progress.
So a couple of weeks away from heavy lifting and actual contact did more to enhance his mind than to hurt his body. With first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham implanting a new scheme and Belin adding new responsibilities, Dent used the time to his advantage.
“There’s going to be things in life that’s going to be tough, but you have to overcome,” said Dent, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound native of Atlanta. “It was tough at times, but people had my back and stayed by my side through the whole process. I just stayed mentally focused. I was in walkthroughs and always in the meeting room with Coach Belin and Coach Grantham. It was real important to me.”
Dent couldn’t partake in most drills during preseason practice, but he never missed a rep mentally. Standing a few yards away, he thought what he would do in the same circumstances his teammates were working through. He watched tape.
All the while, Dent envisioned his future steps.
And those steps have put Dent among the leaders in SEC defensive statistics.
Some feared Dent probably came back too early, but he wasn’t going to miss the season opener. He was determined to establish the new tone in Grantham’s first year.
“I think, at the end of fall camp, he just pushed himself,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Christian Robinson said. “He was in a lot of pain, but he wanted to be out there. He wanted to be the leader. That’s ultimately what I think set the tone as the work ethic that we were going to have this season. He’s a competitor, and he wants to get to the ball. He’s a leader on the field.”
He has averaged 10 tackles per game, racking up 90 total tackles, 50 of which were solo. He also has added 2.5 sacks. On top of the stats, he also has made sure everyone else knows where they are going. Ask any Bulldogs defender, and they’ll point to Dent as the leader.
“He’s been huge, just with how to deal with everything that’s thrown at you on the field,” Robinson said. “When we’re out there, he gets everybody lined up and gets the call in. There is so much going on. He has to talk with the line and the secondary. We try to tackle that together, but he gets everybody in the right place.”
Whether the success is a senior-year realization, a good fit in a new scheme or credit the enhanced mental recognition, Dent has shown he can lead a defense.
Up until this point, Dent was seen as a talented football player who couldn’t stay healthy. Hamstring issues cost him most of his junior season. The toe injury could have been the final bullet point to a career bio that never lived up to full potential.
Now Dent is left with only three games, and a bowl game is not guaranteed with Georgia’s current 4-5 record. And as with most seniors, the NFL looms as an unknown, yet feasible next step.
“I wish I had him back,” Belin said. “He’s a great young man. I have a lot of respect for him in the way that he’s worked. He has become a leader of our football team and our defense. I’m excited for him and for what the future holds for him, and if the good Lord is willing, he’ll finish the season for us. And if the good Lord is willing, the NFL will open its doors for him, and he’ll make it at the next level.”
Regardless of where he ends up, Dent, who graduates this December with a degree in Residential Property Management, is thankful for his final season. He’s thrilled he got to show how productive he could be when healthy, and he’ll have the memories he has made in Athens for some time.
“Oh man, I’ll always remember the guys that were here with me,” Dent said. “This senior class, we’ve fought this season. One thing about this team, no matter how much we’ve been out of a game or started off slow, I’ll always remember this is a hard working group and a team that had a lot of fight in them. We never give up. We’re not going to give up easily. There is something special around here. It’s going to be nice to reflect on this season once it’s over with.”