1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …

This isn’t going away. It was only a matter of time before a sharp investigator and an aggressive trial attorney connected with a grieving family.

The big question: What’s the play for the University of Georgia?

Does it let a $40 million lawsuit brought by the father of former Georgia player Devin Willock — who died in January from a car crash that also took the life of Georgia staffer Chandler LeCroy and, according to police, included the involvement of former star defensive tackle Jalen Carter — play out for all to see? Or does it settle quickly to avoid a potential public undressing of its widely successful football program?

“There’s no lack of control for our program,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said at a March press conference to kick off spring practice.

While that’s a fair statement from Smart’s perch, it’s also fair to address how we got here — and if mistakes were made by the program, and/or individually by players and a staffer.

Willock’s father, Dave Willock Sr., is suing the Georgia Athletic Association (the athletic arm of the university), and members of the GAA. The lawsuit names LeCroy, who police said was driving the vehicle that crashed with Willock as a passenger, and Carter, who was in a separate car and last month pled no contest to a charge of reckless driving and racing in connection with the incident.

The lawsuit zeroes in on the GAA’s nonprofit protection by stating the GAA waived its “charitable immunity” by purchasing insurance covering its employees and the “negligent entrustment” of a vehicle to LeCroy. The GAA, the lawsuit states, was negligent in hiring, supervising, training and retraining her employment — and that her actions as an individual and as a GAA employee endangered Willock.

The lawsuit also says GAA employees “were aware of LeCroy’s driving problems, and her drinking on Jan. 14, 2023.” The accident occurred in the early morning hours of Sunday, Jan. 15, when police said LeCroy was driving an SUV owned by the university, had twice the legal limit of alcohol in her system and her car was traveling at more than 100 mph.

WXIA-TV in Atlanta reported in late March that prior to the accident, LeCroy had 4 speeding tickets in 4 different counties — and that Bryant Gantt, Georgia’s director of player support and operations, attempted to get the fine reduced for the 4th of LeCroy’s tickets (given on Oct. 30, 2022).

While it’s not unusual to attempt to get fines reduced, Gantt’s attempt produces a direct line of knowledge about LeCroy’s history of driving problems to an employee of the GAA.

While the GAA said LeCroy was permitted to use the SUV for her job duties, she was not working at the time of the accident — and not authorized to use the car.

“No policy, or lack thereof policy, caused this accident,” Smart said in March.

The lines are clearly drawn. The university’s stance is an individual decision — including a decision to use a car that shouldn’t have been used — caused the tragedy.

It’s not that difficult to see what attorneys for Dave Willock will argue: GAA employees were aware of LeCroy’s driving history — and her drinking on the night in question — and that her ability to use GAA vehicles should’ve been eliminated before the deadly accident.

If this goes to trial, depositions and the trial itself could uncover skeletons for all involved: LeCroy, Willock, Carter and any GAA employee associated with the lawsuit.

What’s more important to Georgia: Fighting a lawsuit it may or may not win, or protecting an image and settling on a number that soothes all involved?

2. Unintended consequences

Let’s put this in real time perspective for the university and the football program — because they can’t be separated.

Does Smart really have time to prepare for depositions and a trial? Does he have time to sit with university attorneys and be coached on depositions, and what to say and what not to say?

On what specific words to specific questions could pull the GAA into legal limbo, and what specific words to specific questions will protect it? Better yet, do you want your $10 million a year football coach to be subjected to depositions and a trial — maybe even into and during the 2023 season?

Because if you think Smart won’t be deposed by Dave Willock’s attorneys and won’t be called to trial and drilled for hours by experienced trial lawyers, you’re not following along.

That deposition (and trial examination) begins with “what did you know of Chandler LeCroy’s driving history, and when did you know it?”

Because your director of player support and operations knew not long after Oct. 30, 2022, the date of LeCroy’s most recent ticket. If Gannt testifies that he didn’t tell Smart of LeCroy’s speeding history, the jury will then hear from attorneys for Dave Willock that Gannt and LeCroy played an important role in Georgia’s elite recruiting operation.

And those who play an important role in Georgia’s recruiting operation — which Smart has publicly said over and over is the key to winning — would be on Smart’s radar.

Even if LeCroy didn’t report directly to Smart, you better believe Smart’s director of player support and operations did. The jury would then have to believe that not only did Gannt — who prior to joining Georgia in 2011, worked for 19 years as a legal assistant, investigator and process server for the Athens law firm of Cook, Noel & Tolley — fail to report the speeding history to Smart, but that he tried to get the ticket reduced on his own.

Gannt’s job responsibilities, per the Georgia football official website, are “providing advice and counsel to student-athletes in areas related to life skills, personal accountability and development, and coordinating and facilitating programming relative to student-athletes.”

Smart’s explanation in March was this (and I’m paraphrasing): there were rules for when LeCroy could use the GAA SUV. She ignored them. No rule can stop someone who wants to break them.

Frankly, I agree with him. But that doesn’t mean a jury will, nor does it prevent Dave Willock’s attorneys from unearthing other embarrassing problems during depositions and trial.

3. The inevitable lawsuit, The Epilogue

Of course this was going to happen. A grieving family has lost a son, and a young man has lost his life.

Devin Willock would’ve started this season, and by all accounts, was ready to blossom into a dependable if not elite player. That means earning potential for NIL money in college and NFL money as a professional.

Let me reiterate: Depositions and a trial will be ugly and public. For Carter — whose timeline on the morning in question and strange absence from the scene will be dissected — for GAA employees who knew of LeCroy’s driving history, and for Smart and any other staff member with knowledge of LeCroy’s job duties.

Again, it’s not difficult to see where this thing goes, especially when reading the narrative of the lawsuit. Dave Willock’s attorneys could use other anecdotal evidence not connected with the incident — other player behavior problems in the past and how they were handled, and how it could have created a culture that impacted LeCroy’s decision to break rules and take the SUV — to build the framework of an out of control program.

Who knows if it could work, but why risk it? Why in the world would Georgia put Smart and the program through this process?

Find an amenable number, pay up, and move on for the good of all involved.

4. The D is back

Earlier this month during the Big Orange Caravan tour, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Tennessee will have an elite defense in 2023.

This was news because defense was optional in 2021 (33.6 ppg. in SEC games), and incrementally better in Year 2 under DC Tim Banks (26.9 ppg.).

But expect the elite defense narrative to evolve over the summer months and into SEC Media Days in July. Don’t be shocked when Heupel talks up his defense in 2 weeks during the SEC spring meetings Destin.

The reason: recruiting. The past 2 classes have upgraded a defense that was significantly impacted by transfers when Heupel arrived. The numbers are finally up, and more important, the talent level is, too.

Blue-chip recruit CB Jordan Matthews, 1 of 19 midterm enrollees from the 2023 recruiting class that was ranked No. 10 by the 247Sports composite, looked like a starter early on in spring ball. So did LB Arion Carter.

Tyre West, who can play inside and out on the defensive line, and edge Joshua Josephs — both from the 2022 class — will be competing for starting spots in fall camp.

Rickey Gibson, another blue-chip freshman corner, and sophomore edge Joshua Josephs will be critical rotation pieces. So will sophomore S Jourdan Thomas.

The numbers are there, and so is the speed and athleticism. Or as a Tennessee staffer told me, “Young dudes who look and play the part, and can run all over the field.”

5. The Weekly 5

Florida’s win total from our friends at FanDuel is 5.5. Not including rent-a-wins vs. McNese and Charlotte, the 4 best chances for the Gators reach the over:

1. Oct. 7, Vanderbilt: In theory, a lock. But Vandy won rather easily last year in Nashville.

2. Nov. 18, at Missouri: On roster alone, Gators should win. But it might be at the end of a brutal season.

3. Nov. 4, Arkansas: Maybe the Florida defense forces a few turnovers and gives the offense and QB Graham Mertz short fields.

4. Nov. 25, Florida State: 2 things: FSU is overrated, and an average Florida team could’ve won last year’s game in Tallahassee.

5. Sept. 30, at Kentucky: A reach, at best. UK has won 3 of the past 5 games between the teams — and it has been a physical matchup nightmare for Florida.

6. Your tape is your resume

An NFL scout analyzes an NFL Draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Arkansas RB Raheim Sanders.

“The 1 thing that kind of gets overlooked is he’s big guy. He’s all of 6-2, 225-ish pounds. And he can move. He gets to the 2nd level, and forget it. He’s averaging almost 6 yards a carry in his career, and he was getting almost 20 (carries) a game last year. He has the ability to push the pile, too. He’s a hard runner, but I’d love to see more wiggle, more make-you-miss.”

7. Powered Up

This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: If the SEC punts on 9 games — a big if — the best 1 permanent opponent for each team in the 1-7 model.

1. Georgia: Florida. The Cocktail Party is the 1 game in the SEC that is played on the same weekend, at the same time — every season.

2. LSU: Oklahoma. Tigers lose out on rivals Alabama, Florida and Texas A&M — and are left with a strong option.

3. Tennessee: Kentucky. Makes geographical sense, and prevents a blue-blood program from earning an annual gimme putt (Vanderbilt).

4. Alabama: Auburn. A no-brainer. The best rivalry in the SEC.

5. Texas A&M: Texas. It’s a new league, fellas. Handle your differences on the field. You’re playing each other every season, like it or not.

6. Kentucky: Tennessee. A huge win for the Wildcats, who keep a bitter rival instead of getting placed with a make believe one (South Carolina).

7. Ole Miss: Mississippi State. Don’t ever, ever, ever — did I say ever? — move it again from Thanksgiving night.

8. Arkansas: Missouri. Texas would’ve been fun. So, too, would LSU or Texas A&M. Missouri is the fallback.

9. Mississippi State: Ole Miss. We all understand the word ever, right?

10. South Carolina: Vanderbilt. Gamecocks are in a bit of a geographical no man’s land. The 1-7 format likely eliminates permanent games against Florida and Tennessee (in a 3-6 format).

11. Florida: Georgia. Florida fans used to convince themselves that Tennessee or Florida State were bigger rivals. Suddenly, Georgia is everything again.

12. Auburn: Alabama. Imagine being Auburn, and 2 of your 3-6 format permanent opponents are the 2 best programs in the SEC (Alabama, Georgia).

13. Missouri: Arkansas. The 1st permanent fit for Missouri is the 4th fit for Arkansas.

14. Vanderbilt: South Carolina. The 1st choice is Tennessee, the 2nd is Florida. South Carolina is way down the list — but there’s no avoiding the last chair when the music stops.

Oklahoma: LSU. What in the world does Oklahoma have to do with LSU? Nothing — other than potentially great games every season.

Texas: Texas A&M. The Longhorns and Aggies have bigger fish to fry — like finding a way to win a conference championship for the first time in more than a decade (Texas) or 25 years (Texas A&M).

8. Ask and you shall receive

Matt: Is there anyone left in the transfer portal that can help Auburn generate some offense? — Richard Collins, Birmingham.


Auburn just added QB Payton Thorne from Michigan State, and a natural fit would be his star WR from the Spartans, Keon Coleman (58 catches, 13.8 ypc, 7 TD in 2022). Ole Miss is also pursuing Coleman, who could still return to Michigan State.

Other than that, there’s not much out there that can impact the Auburn offense, or bring greater value than what’s already on campus. Gary Bryant Jr. (USC) committed this week to Oregon, and that leaves a couple of projects — WR JaQuae Jackson, of D-2 California University of Pennsylvania (77 catches, 15 TDs in 2022), and North Texas WR Jyaire Shorter (27.3 ypc., 11 TDs, on only 23 catches in 2022) — who could bring value.

The 1 legit difference-maker left uncommitted is Zakhari Franklin (262 catches, 37 career TDs in 4 seasons) of UTSA, and his recruitment has been strangely quiet since he entered the portal late last month.

The idea now is to focus on Thorne, and how quickly he can be brought up to speed on the offense. He regressed last season at Michigan State, but so did a majority of the team. If he returns to 2021 form, that more than anything will help Auburn generate offense.

9. Numbers

41. Nick Saban says he likes the leadership accountability throughout this year’s Alabama team.

He better, because with the uncertainty at quarterback, the last thing Alabama needs is another undisciplined team in big games. In 4 losses over the past 2 seasons (Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, Texas A&M), the Tide committed 41 penalties — for an average of 10 a game.

In those 4 losses, 14 of the 41 penalties were personal foul calls — of which 11 were pass interference. Pass coverage is all about technique and disciplined preparation.

10. Quote to note

Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, on changes this spring: “I just think overall, the mentality, the hunger, the way you go about your business, with attitude or an edge, this game is meant to be played that way. You can’t go out there and go through the motions. That’s on all of us, coaches and players.”