ATHENS, Ga. — Cracking into the starting lineup always seemed to be a foregone conclusion for Alec Ogletree.
The true freshman has the size, speed, ball skills and big-hitting swagger coaches covet in a safety. He was the highest-rate recruit in Georgia’s 2010 class, so he was expected to contribute early.
But he had some growing to do first, on and off the field, before he heard his name called in the starting lineup. Ogletree was arrested in early September for theft by taking after another student-athlete reported a $35 scooter helmet had been stolen. The matter has since, “been taken care,” according to Ogletree. While the full details have not surfaced, teammates say there was no intent to break the law.
Still, the ordeal sent Ogletree to jail for the first time in his life, and he was suspended for the season opener. The mess left him embarrassed and ashamed, he says. But through those feelings, the kid everyone calls “Tree” grew as a person.
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“I think that experience would help anybody learn,” sophomore safety Bacarri Rambo said. “Anybody will try to stay out of trouble after being suspended for one game. He let the team down. He let his family down. He let himself down. You’ll learn from something like that. You won’t let that happen anymore.”
The incident was a small blight in the overall big picture, Rambo said. But Ogletree’s arrest was, at the time, the ninth such incident for the Bulldogs since January, and Ogletree paid a severe price in the realm of public perception.
“It just shocked me,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “The way things unfolded, I told him I wished he would have handled it a little bit better. That was me being an older guy talking to a younger guy. It just didn’t go down how it should have. He should have done things the right way and he knows that. He’s definitely matured from that. I wish it hadn’t gone down that way, but it’s been a learning experience.”
Learning from what happened, Ogletree realized he had to collect himself and “leave nothing to question” in the future, he said.
“Yeah, you just have to be aware of your surroundings and act right,” he said. “I am much more off to myself now. I try to stay away from trouble now.”
Meanwhile, on the football field, Ogletree grew too. Physically, he has been ready. He enrolled at 6-foot-3, 224 pounds as an 18-year-old. Decked out in full pads, he looks even more intimidating.
“Physically, he’s been able to do it all along,” Robinson said. “He’s been shocking people, hitting people hard in practice. People wonder where the walls are (around the practice field) to make sure he doesn’t hit you out-of-bounds too far. He brings that punch. All those things come together.”
Ogletree was so punishing, many thought he would move to linebacker before preseason practices even started. That was never going to happen, according to secondary coach Scott Lakatos, who wouldn’t let such a prize get out of his grasp.
“That’s what a lot of people would assume, but he moves well enough to play safety right now,” Lakatos said.
All the physical prowess aside, very rarely do freshman safeties break into the starting lineup. There’s too much to comprehend. There’s too much responsibility. There’s still too much growing left to do.
“I just think he had to learn what he was supposed to do and learn how fast he was supposed to do it,” Lakatos said. “That’s probably the thing that holds up most young guys when they’re breaking into the lineup. You could see that he had a lot of natural ability. He just needed some direction, just learn the way the game is played at this level.”
With an eye toward gaining more playing time, Ogletree went to work. He studied film. He prepared for practices. He made plays. When he got back from his suspension, he was inserted into each special-teams unit. Ogletree blasted opponents, making huge blocks and tackles on the kicking unit.
“When the opportunity comes, I try to take it,” he said. “When I do make a big hit, it’s an adrenaline rush. But when I do it, it’s time to go to the next play.”
“He’s a hunter,” Robinson said. “I heard a lot of people talking about him coming out of high school, so I wanted to check him out. I went to look at his film, and he really hits people. When he hits you, you’re not going anywhere. He’s fast, he’s strong, and he’s about the same size as a linebacker playing safety back there.”
By the midpoint of the season, Ogletree played a few series each game at safety, and he didn’t make many mistakes.
“I think he’s got potential to be a great safety,” Rambo said. “He’s willing to learn and do great things to help out the secondary and the defense. He’s trying his best. He’s going to hustle to the ball. He’s going to fly to try to make plays happen.”
Finally, in early November, five days before the Idaho State game, Ogletree got word from Lakatos in a matter-of-fact method that he was in position to start.
“When we were coming in and going over the film to look at the team, Coach Lakatos said, ‘I want you to go with the first group,’” Ogletree said. “I didn’t jump up and down with joy and stuff. But I was very excited. I was happy to hear that.”
He finished the game with three solo tackles, good enough for second-best on the team. Head coach Mark Richt announced Ogletree graded out well enough to maintain his starting spot.
Ogletree understands he has to keep getting better to keep starting. His growth is far from completion.
“It’s really up to me whether I lose it or keep it,” he said.
“Hopefully I keep working hard and have no injuries.”
But at this point in time, there is no telling how much more growth is in store for a player, and person, who has already progressed so much.
“I think he could be great, man. He’s got speed. He’s strong. He’s got all the physical attributes as a safety. If he just continues to learn and stays in the playbook and learn the scheme, he’ll be very dangerous. He could be an All-American.”