ATHENS — Since his early days in high school, Trinton Sturdivant has kept to a tradition. With the start of each new season, he enters preseason as if it were his first.
He prepares as if he’s learning plays for the first time. He works at practice as if the coaches have never seen him play. His job is up for grabs, no matter how entrenched in the role he appeared at the end of the previous season.
“Every year I try to think of myself as a freshman and try to start all over again, building trust,” Sturdivant said. “I still haven’t lost my hunger for the game, out there working hard trying to get it, comparing myself to this guy or that guy. What can I do better? What are my weaknesses?”
The difference this offseason is that Sturdivant really is starting over. A knee injury in August left the 300-pound lineman wondering if he would ever play football again, and the long hours spent in the training room during the past five months have already convinced him that returning to his job as Georgia’s starting left tackle won’t be simple.
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After a standout freshman season for the Bulldogs, Sturdivant figured to be an anchor for Georgia’s young offensive line in 2008, but those aspirations for his sophomore campaign were quickly dashed.
In came on a play-action pass in an early scrimmage. Sturdivant was in the process of running defensive end Justin Houston up the field when a teammate fell into his knee.
He immediately knew the injury was serious.
Sturdivant clearly remembers hearing the pops. His left knee was bent inward at such a drastic angle that it touched his right leg. His description was concise, but fitting: “It was nasty.”
Among the linemen, Sturdivant had one of the most outgoing personalities, and it was hardly uncommon to hear him above the usual commotion in practice. But this was different. His screams echoed across the practice field.
“My fellow linemen, they saw it, and they knew it was bad,” Sturdivant said. “When they saw it on my face that I was really hurting, they knew what was up.”
In the hours after the injury, Sturdivant panicked.
An MRI revealed he had torn three ligaments in his knee and his meniscus. Sure, players came back from knee injuries all the time, but this was different. He worried he might never play again.
Sturdivant soon got a phone call from another former Georgia player, running back Albert Hollis. The two were members of the same fraternity, and Hollis knew first-hand what Sturdivant was going through.
As a redshirt freshman in 2001, Hollis had his sights set on the starting running back job at Georgia, but in a drill during spring practice, his career came to an abrupt end. Like Sturdivant, Hollis tore three ligaments in his knee, but he also suffered nerve damage. He was never able to play again.
When he called Sturdivant, however, it wasn’t to relive his own injury. Hollis offered only encouragement.
“We keep in touch a lot about it,” Sturdivant said. “He’s helped me mentally go through the season and try to stay focused on my goals and stuff like that.”
It took just one surgery to repair Sturdivant’s myriad injuries. His confidence was restored almost as quickly.
“Probably about two weeks after the surgery, I was fine,” Sturdivant said. “I was putting more weight on it than what the trainers were saying, so I kind of knew I was going to be able to come back. But during the surgery and the couple of weeks afterward, it was crazy.”
Watching his teammates go to battle without him was difficult, Sturdivant said, but he maintained a sharp focus on his rehab. And he wasn’t alone.
The left tackle position he had vacated was filled by a carousel of Georgia linemen. Kiante Tripp struggled to find consistency at the position. Vince Vance took over for Tripp, but soon fell victim to a knee injury of his own. Josh Davis, Sturdivant’s backup before the injury, even suffered a serious shoulder injury in the Bulldogs’ final game. Teammates joked that Sturdivant had jinxed the position.
In the training room, however, Sturdivant remained every bit the leader he had been on the field. As the first of nearly two-dozen season-ending injuries Georgia would suffer during the 2008 season, Sturdivant set the standard that the other rehabbing Bulldogs strived to achieve.
Now, just five months removed from surgery, he’s off his crutches and impressing in the weight room. Although he won’t participate in spring drills, he’s already jogging, doing lunges and stepping exercises.
“I’m not going as heavy as all the other guys, but I’m still getting up there,” he said.
Sturdivant expects to be back to full speed before Georgia opens its fall camp, and his return means there will be a healthy amount of competition for starting jobs.
The litany of injuries in 2008 meant depth on the line was a concern all season. In 2009, it means nine players with starting experience will be competing for five spots.
“I think it’s going to help us a lot just having depth,” center Ben Jones said. “We’re going to see who’s the best, and we’re probably going to have a little more subbing going on this year.”
Sturdivant’s left tackle job eventually fell to Clint Boling, who didn’t immediately embrace the new role but soon became one of the SEC’s top blockers.
While Boling could easily slide back to guard where he started in 2007, Sturdivant sees his teammate’s success as another bit of motivation to come back stronger than ever. When he finally does return to full practices in August, he’ll be ready.
After all, Sturdivant said, fighting for a job is what camp is all about.
“I’m working every day just to get back to where I was. Training room’s got me working hard, and the weight room’s got me working hard,” Sturdivant said. “I have to work just like everybody else for the position. It’s a whole new year, there’s five spots to fill, so now it’s who’s going to fill them?”