Georgia seniors hope Richard LeCounte joins them against Vanderbilt

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Georgia football coach Kirby Smart addresses the unusual circumstances of this senior night in 2020 and paying tribute to Richard LeCounte.

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart left the door cracked on the possibility of Richard LeCounte making it back onto the field for the Bulldogs’ final home game Saturday at Sanford Stadium. It would be neat and fitting, with it being Senior Day and all.

But Smart said it was unlikely. Though LeCounte made the trip to Columbia, S.C., with his teammates this past weekend, he still remains only four weeks removed from a near-fatal motorcycle accident that left him in intensive care Halloween night. And with a 33-point underdog in Vanderbilt (4 p.m., SEC Network) coming in as Georgia’s opponent, there really is no need for either the risk or reward that the Bulldogs’ All-American safety might bring to the defense.

“There is a chance that Richard can get back,” Smart said Monday. “I don’t know how realistic it is for this week, but he’s doing more. He’s running now and he’s with us. He’s back into things. There is a chance that he can get out there and play by this week.”

It would be pretty cool, for sure. In a season in which player opt-outs are happening almost daily, especially among players with realistic NFL ambitions, LeCounte has stated publicly that he intends to return for the Bulldogs this season.

There is not much left to the season at this point, however. Georgia has just one more game scheduled after Vanderbilt this Saturday, and it remains unclear when the Bulldogs might play Missouri. Originally scheduled to be played Nov. 14 in Columbia, Mo., the Tigers had to postpone the game because of the presence of COVID-19 in their program. It could be played Dec. 19 — the day of the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium — but the SEC has put all make-up dates on hold pending further rescheduling developments. The league said Monday it will make an announcement Friday afternoon on the final schedule. That would be after all the COVID-19 testing for this Saturday’s slate of games has been completed.

Regardless of whether he plays, LeCounte will be recognized on the field Saturday along with Georgia’s other seniors. But it will not be the traditional Senior Day ceremony at Sanford Stadium. Players’ families and loved ones won’t be allowed on Vince Dooley Field with them. It will be only the players, with Smart stopping by to acknowledge and take a picture with each one.

It is, indeed, a special senior class. They were the ones who first answered Smart’s call to come play for the Bulldogs. In fact, Smart reminded reporters Monday that LeCounte was his first commitment as Georgia’s coach, pledging to the Bulldogs as a junior at Liberty County High.

“He was an early commit; one of the first ones,” Smart said. “I still remember the day that he was an eighth or ninth grader and he visited Alabama with Raekwon McMillan. He came over and I got to meet him then. His personality was so infectious. The whole time I recruited Raekwon, I got to know Richard. That relationship carried over when I got the head job here and he was one of the first to jump on board.

“He has been so loyal to Georgia in an era when that’s not normal.”

And even in a pandemic-shortened, conference-game only season, this group stands to become the winningest class in Georgia football history.

Numbering about 20, including walk-ons, the Bulldogs’ 2020 seniors enter the Vanderbilt game with a 42-9 record, three SEC Eastern Division crowns and one SEC title (2017). The most wins by a senior class belongs to the 2005 and 2019 groups, which each had 44 wins and claimed a combined three SEC titles (2002, 2005, 2017). Georgia’s most decorated seniors were in the 1983 class, which went 43-4-1, winning the 1980 national championship and three SEC titles (1980-82). Last year’s seniors were 44-12 record.

LeCounte was part of the 2017 recruiting class that was ranked No. 3 in the nation by 247Sports. He was one of three 5-star prospects, along with tackle Isaiah Wilson and running back D’Andre Swift.

Of the five highest-ranked players in that class, only LeCounte remains. The others, including quarterback and Andrew Thomas, left for the NFL after their junior seasons.

LeCounte could have, but he chose to return for his senior season, and plans to again.

In fact, besides grad transfer quarterback Jamie Newman, who left UGA in early September to train for the draft, Georgia hasn’t had any other seniors or draft-eligible underclassmen opt-out.

“Guys have different reasons why they opt-out,” said tight end Tre McKitty, who graduated from Florida State before transferring to UGA. “Here, right now as a team, we’re just trying to finish out the year strong, you know. We don’t control our destiny or anything like that, so we’re just trying to keep our head down and work hard.”

Thanks to the pandemic, this particular senior class has the option of returning for another season if they choose. The NCAA offered another year of eligibility to all players, regardless of whether they play or not. However, currently teams still have to be able to fit them within their overall roster limit of 85 scholarship players.

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Georgia wide receiver Demetris Robertson (16) makes a catch during the second half against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Georgia wide receiver Demetris Robertson (16) makes a catch during the second half against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

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Georgia wide receiver Demetris Robertson (16) makes a catch during the second half against Mississippi State, Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020, in Athens. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Credit: Brynn Anderson

Wide receiver Demetris Robertson plans to participate in Senior Day on Saturday, but he didn’t close the door on possibly returning for another season next year.

“I am taking part in Senior Day, but I don’t know what the future holds,” said Robertson, who transferred to Georgia from California before the 2018 season. “I really want to graduate and my family wants me to graduate, so we’ll sit down and see what happens. I mean, 2020 had so many things that came with it, you can’t shut any door.”

It seems clear at this juncture that it will be the final home game for LeCounte, whether he plays or not. He was commanding very high draft marks before his accident sidelined for the last month.

Perhaps he could come onto the field just for just one play or a ceremonial start. It sounds as though his teammates wouldn’t begrudge any attention that might land on LeCounte.

“He’s had huge impact,” said junior Christopher Smith, who has replaced LeCounte in the starting lineup. “He always makes huge plays for the defense, always gives us a good kick of energy. Ever since I’ve been starting in his place, he’s still been giving me tips and stuff like that.”

Said sophomore defensive end Travon Walker: “Richard LeCounte is a very exciting player to be around. He’s so energetic. I played against him in high school. Just to see the energy that he was able to transfer from high school to college has made a big impact on me. He’s an outstanding leader, very vocal.”

Added Robertson: “Richard’s my boy. Just a true leader, a dynamic play-maker, a ball-hawking safety who can come down and hit you. He just affects us in a great way, on and off the field.”

Perhaps this Saturday, it will be on the field.