Jonathan Ledbetter jogged toward his position on the left side of the defensive line. Putting his hand in the dirt, with his upper arm flexed, it was obvious to every observer at this particular practice that Ledbetter’s upper body has changed considerably since the end of the 2016-17 season.
And on this particular play it showed. Ledbetter jumped off the snap, threw off the offensive lineman blocking him and barreled down at quarterback Jacob Eason for what would have been a sack if the Bulldogs were tackling in practice.
It was only one play and therefore an incredibly small sample size. And it’s not like Ledbetter hasn’t made plays in games. After serving a six-game suspension to start last season, Ledbetter totaled 24 tackles and a sack in Georgia’s final seven games.
Ledbetter, in a recent tweet, said he’s up to 280 pounds and it certainly shows on the field. His upper body looks a lot stronger, which could make him a candidate for a breakout season. Head coach Kirby Smart said he doesn’t think Ledbetter’s weight has fluctuated too much, but that he’s added muscle and trimmed fat.
“I think he looks better,” Smart said. “He’s transformed some of that. It’s not actual pounds. He’s quicker, he’s playing faster. He’s been pretty consistent so far in the spring of the guys up front. You get the same consistent performance. He’s got the stamina to go play three, four plays in a row and run things down, where some of those other guys can’t do that.”
Ledbetter’s weight gain has been steady. At the beginning of the 2016 season, Ledbetter was listed at 251 pounds in the Georgia media guide. Before Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win over TCU, Ledbetter was up to 269 pounds.
Outside linebacker Davin Bellamy has been impressed with what he has seen so far from Ledbetter during spring practice.
“He’s moving very well,” Bellamy said. “He knows the type of future that he has, so everything else, he’s not really worried about right now.”
Defensive tackle John Atkins has also seen glimpses of what Ledbetter’s potential could be this coming season.
“I’ve got a lot of faith in him,” Atkins said. “It goes with the whole defense. Everyone on our defense can have a breakout year. We just have to continue to work.”
Ledbetter served a six-game suspension due to two alcohol-related arrests, one of which was for a DUI. Ledbetter spent time away from the team before easing his way back into football activities.
Bellamy said he’s seen Ledbetter grow up from those moments that sidelined him for roughly half of last season.
“I think he learned from his mistakes,” Bellamy said. “He’s a great football player. He knows where his talents can take him. Me and him talk a lot and he knows he has a bright future ahead of him. He’s just going to be Ledbetter. He’s going to go out there and play football. He’s going to be OK.”
Georgia will have a lot of depth on the defensive line in 2017. Along with Ledbetter, the Bulldogs will return every single contributor from the unit.
A stronger Ledbetter, who hasn’t sacrificed any speed in the process, could make the Bulldogs an even more dangerous group. With opposing teams constantly hurrying defenses up to the line of scrimmage, Smart said Ledbetter might be the only lineman he can count on, at this point in time, to keep up with a fast-paced attack.
“How many guys can you play up front and just leave in the game? Right now, he might be the only guy who is playing at that level,” Smart said. “I think it comes from his offseason conditioning. He took it really serious. He took a lot of pride in it. I hope it continues to pay off for him."