(Last updated 8:40 p.m.)
ATHENS – Georgia will open the football season without its leading rusher of a year ago.
Washaun Ealey has been suspended for at least the Sept. 4 opener against Louisiana-Lafayette after an early-Friday arrest for hit-and-run of a parked vehicle and driving with a suspended license.
Ealey’s arrest -– the eighth of a UGA football player this year -– irritated coach Mark Richt to the extent that he said he didn’t really want to talk with the sophomore running back.
“I didn’t plan on talking to him because I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to speak to him. I didn’t know what I might say,” Richt said Friday evening. “But after I decided that I was going to suspend him at least one game, I thought it’d be at least proper to tell him before I [announced it]. I didn’t really feel like speaking to him, quite frankly.”
Richt was upset that Ealey drove despite knowing his license was suspended and assuring Georgia director of football operations Josh Brooks and running backs coach Bryan McClendon that he would not get behind the wheel.
“He saw them face to face and knew he had a suspended license and said he wouldn’t drive,” Richt said.
Ealey could return for Georgia’s second game -– Sept. 11 at South Carolina -– “if he handles things the way he should and behaves between now and [then],” Richt said. “But he’s got to show me that he deserves to go back.”
In the meantime, Richt said Ealey will be “subject to internal discipline,” including a lot of extra running.
This year’s eight arrests of Georgia football players, all since March, have been for a range of charges, from battery to public intoxication. Five of the cases, although not Ealey’s, included alcohol-related charges. Two included driver’s license violations. All of the charges have been misdemeanors.
In addition to the player arrests, Georgia’s former athletic director, Damon Evans, was forced to resign after a June 30 DUI arrest in Atlanta. His replacement, Greg McGarity, officially begins work next week.
Richt said he consulted with McGarity before suspending Ealey.
“I want to always make sure myself and the athletic director . . . are on the same page with how we handle things,” Richt said. “There really wasn’t any problem coming to the right conclusion.”
Ealey was arrested early Friday by UGA Police after a vehicle he was driving ran into a parked truck in an East Campus parking deck around 3:20 a.m., UGA Police Chief Jimmy Williamson said.
Ealey, 21, was booked into the Clarke County Jail at 5:22 a.m. and released at 11:18 a.m. on bonds totaling $3,480.
In addition to a $1,500 bond on each of Friday’s two misdemeanor charges, Ealey was required to post another $480 bond because of an outstanding bench warrant for failure to appear in July in Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court on speeding and vehicle registration charges.
Ealey was charged with the speeding and tag violations on May 30, and when he failed to appear for a July 12 hearing, his driver’s license was suspended, Municipal Court Clerk Rhonda Bolton said Friday.
“He was well aware. We were well aware,” Richt said. “If you have a suspended license, you can’t get behind the wheel of a car.”
But Ealey was behind the wheel of a 2004 Chevrolet Impala early Friday, Williamson said.
“It was foolish,” Richt said.
An employee of UGA Parking Services “witnessed the accident, made contact with the driver and advised him to wait because police had been called,” Williamson said. “The driver advised he could not wait and left the scene” after parking the car.
After officers arrived and ran the tag number on the car, Williamson said, they went to the dorm room of the vehicle’s registered owner. The owner, whom Williamson would not name, said he hadn’t been driving the car but that his roommate — Ealey — had been. Ealey was then interviewed by police.
“He admitted to driving the vehicle, admitted to being involved in an accident,” Williamson said.
Officers then determined that Ealey’s license was suspended, leading to a second charge, Williamson said.
Although jail records showed the first charge against Ealey as hit-and-run of a parked vehicle, Williamson said the charge technically will be violation of the “duty-upon-strike” law. The law, Williamson said, is that “you have a responsibility when you hit an unoccupied car or other fixed object, like a fence, to report it.”
Alcohol was not involved in the incident, Williamson said. No one was injured, he said.
Ealey, from Stillmore, Ga., gained 717 yards on 125 carries last season despite starting only two games. He and Caleb King formed an effective tailback tandem late in the season, with King starting the final five games but Ealey getting as many or more carries.
After practice Thursday night -– roughly 10 hours before Ealey’s arrest –- McClendon, the running backs coach, said King likely would start Georgia’s opening game.
Ealey’s arrest continued a troublesome year off the field for the Bulldogs.
“I think it definitely tarnishes our image,” tight end Aron White said of the team’s eight arrests, “but at the same time I don’t think we have any bad seeds on this team. I just think we have guys who have made silly mistakes for the most part and done things that they know better. I don’t think we have any guys that are just bad to the core and did things intentionally to hurt people.”
Three of the eight arrested players were subsequently kicked off the team: outside linebacker Montez Robinson, who was charged with simple battery/family violence; quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual battery; and backup punter Trent Dittmer, who was charged with public intoxication. Another player, running back Dontavius Jackson, decided to transfer after being suspended for six games because of DUI and other charges. Wide receiver Tavarres King is suspended for the opening game because of an underage possession of alcohol charge.
“This team [is] very resilient,” Richt said. “I guarantee you that the guys who are out there will play their tails off. There’s a whole bunch of them who have been doing everything right, who have been preparing for a tremendous season.”