MEMPHIS, Tenn. – For a while, Tuesday afternoon was routine, as the usual stream of Georgia players flowed through pre-practice interviews.
Trinton Sturdivant meets reporters prior to Tuesday's UGA practice in Memphis.
But junior offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant’s first media visit in nearly two years?
Now that became an event.
“Big ticket!” cried tight end Aron White, one of several passing Bulldogs who couldn’t resist responding to the beat reporters circling Sturdivant, a redshirt junior and one of the team’s most popular members.
Though in his fourth year at UGA, Sturdivant shook hands with each of the reporters as an introduction.
“It’s been a while,” he said.
Sturdivant has not been made available to the media for the past two seasons, largely on the wishes of offensive line coach Stacy Searels, who typically only allows a handful of players in his unit to give interviews.
That’s a shame, really, since the jovial 6-foot-5, 320-pound Wadesboro, N.C., native seems a natural character for it. He wears braces on his knees and braces on his teeth, somehow encapsulating the story of a playful, fun-loving, child-like personality being tested by the brutally harsh nature of college football – and ultimately displaying the toughness to withstand it.
“There aren’t many that have gone through what he’s gone through and come out of it as well as he has,” UGA coach Mark Richt said.
Sturdivant is helped off the field after tearing his ACL during the 2009 season opener against Oklahoma State. (Photo courtesy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
“All you can do is applaud him,” wide receiver Kris Durham said, “considering all he’s been through.”
In five minutes Tuesday, Sturdivant playfully joked with teammates and reporters seemingly at all once, somehow keeping a light mood while describing the kind of cruel twists that would have ended the playing careers of many.
After being named a freshman All-American and starting all 13 games as Georgia’s left tackle in 2007, Sturdivant suffered a severe left knee injury in 2008, requiring reconstructive surgery.
A year later, after months of grueling rehabilitation, Sturdivant tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the same knee during the 2009 season opener.
That meant another surgery, more rehab, more time out of the lineup.
“The process was real tough when it happened the second time,” Sturdivant said Tuesday, “knowing that the ultimate goal for every college player should be the NFL. For that to be tarnished because of the injuries was tough, and being that you won’t be able to play with your teammates, and you don’t know if you’re going to be able to come off the injury and play well.
"It was struggle, a serious struggle. Mentally, it was a struggle.”
Sturdivant stressed that he’s “never been a quitter,” so he went through everything again to be able to return as a junior in 2010. So far this season, he has played in 11 games (missing the opener with a stomach bug), starting six of them and improving with each step. He received the in-house honor of the team’s top lineman during the regular season finale against Georgia Tech.
Perhaps most important of all, he has stayed healthy.
“In the beginning of the year, it was a very important point (to stay healthy),” Sturdivant said. “But now, it’s like I’m just playing football. It hasn’t happened to me yet, so I don’t anticipate it happening now. It’s a rare thing.”
“I wouldn’t say he’s back to where he was his freshman year,” UGA offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said, “but I think him getting through this season will help him mentally. I think going into the next year, he’ll have a chance to get back where he was.”
With those words, Bobo brings up a key point.
What about next year?
Four years into his college career, Sturdivant appears to be growing antsy. He has submitted paperwork to receive a round projection from the NFL draft advisory board.
“I would love to hear first round (as my projection), but you just don’t know,” Sturdivant said. “You’ve just got to play it out and wait and see how everything happens.”
It wasn't just an exploratory move for reasons of curiousity. Sturdivant is serious.
Pressed on the issue Tuesday, he made it clear he’s still considering the jump. That's despite the clear thoughts of Richt, Bobo and Searels that Sturdivant would benefit from another season in college.
Searels has said he hopes Sturdivant and junior guard Cordy Glenn – who is also considering early entry into the draft – make “wise decisions” and return for another season. Yet there is a contingency plan in place which would call for freshman guard Kenarious Gates, if needed, to possibly move to tackle in the spring.
Like Bobo, Richt steered his comments on Sturdivant toward 2011.
“He’s had a good season,” Richt said. “Hopefully, he’ll come back and have a great season next year.”
Perhaps the Georgia player with the most to lose by an early departure for Sturdivant would be right-handed freshman quarterback Aaron Murray. Asked if he expects his left tackle to be back, Murray replied, “I definitely hope so.”
“He really hasn’t done much in two years because of injuries,” Murray said. “We’re definitely looking forward to him having a whole offseason now of being healthy and being able to do workouts and conditioning and spring practice.”
Per the NFL topic, Sturdivant's words at the moment: "I just don't know."
“I feel like I’m very close," Sturdivant said. "At first, it was little issues with, ‘Oh, is he going to fall into the mental battle or whatever.’ But now, I’m at the end of the season, and I’m feeling good. ... I don’t think I would just straight-up not get drafted. But I haven’t really weighed all my options with my family, because I’m in-season.”