published Friday, December 28th, 2012

Offensive line now a Georgia strength

Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend congratulates freshman tackle John Theus.
Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend congratulates freshman tackle John Theus.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

PRACTICE UPDATE

The Bulldogs practiced for two hours in full pads Thursday morning, and coach Mark Richt insists the focus is squarely on Nebraska and no longer on the SEC title-game loss to Alabama.

"They won't forget about it, but life goes on," Richt said. "We know there has been a lot of time between that last game and this one. We had some great practices on campus, and they know we've got a serious bit of business to take care of here."

Two of the most popular opinions concerning Georgia's offensive linemen this season have been that they were terrible in the spring and that they performed well in every game but South Carolina.

Bulldogs line coach Will Friend takes some exception to both.

With veteran quarterback Aaron Murray setting numerous records and freshman tailback Todd Gurley exceeding even the brightest of forecasts, Georgia's offense has set program records for points (484) and touchdowns (66) entering Tuesday's Capital One Bowl against Nebraska. The Bulldogs began the season with new starters at three of the five line spots, but center David Andrews, guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee and tackles Kenarious Gates and John Theus have enabled them to average a healthy 458.3 yards a game.

"The number one thing those guys did was to get better each day," Friend said, "and that's what our goal was."

Burnette, Lee and Gates made multiple starts at guard last season, but Gates was moved to left tackle before the spring to replace Cordy Glenn, who was a second-round pick of the Buffalo Bills. Watts Dantzler and junior college transfer Mark Beard worked some at right tackle, but that spot wasn't nailed down until touted freshman Theus arrived in the summer.

Once spring started, the offensive linemen had to fend off Todd Grantham's defensive front seven that included noseguard John Jenkins and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, three of the top 20 projections in the 2013 NFL draft.

"It was pretty rough, because that's when Coach Grantham was installing all their blitzes," Lee said. "There was no straight play all freaking spring. It was nothing but Coach Grantham's crazy blitzes nonstop. It was a rough time."

Lee admitted there was a strengthening aspect to those 15 workouts, and Friend said he was never alarmed when his players were being overpowered during the scrimmages.

"I wasn't just in a panic in the spring," Friend said. "Dallas Lee wasn't totally healed coming off a bad leg injury, and Chris Burnette was banged up some. Kenarious Gates was at a new position, and David Andrews was replacing a guy who had been there four years. Mark Beard had never heard a play here before and had only been here a month, so I knew we had a whole bunch of new faces who had a chance to get better.

"As those guys got more healthy throughout the spring and got more comfortable with the positions they were playing, things got better."

Concerns about the offensive line became rare when the starting five were established and offensive statistics improved during August practices. Then the Bulldogs went out and averaged 536 yards in their five September contests. In a 56-20 rout of Florida Atlantic in the season's third week, Georgia racked up a program-record 713 yards.

The first Saturday of October was the lone aberration for Georgia's offense, as the Bulldogs were held to a paltry 224 yards in a 35-7 loss at South Carolina. The Gamecocks sandwiched two early touchdown drives around a tipped Murray interception, and they took a 21-0 lead on a 70-yard Ace Sanders punt return less than 10 minutes into the game.

"Their defensive ends had good games, and we got behind in a tough environment that night, but I thought we may have played better in the South Carolina game than we did in some other games," Friend said. "When you're playing those teams and get in a catch-up mode, it puts you in a bind. As the season went on, we were in some better situations against the better football teams.

"One of our keys to success this season is that we've been able to be balanced, and that has helped this young group. That was really the only game where we couldn't afford to still be that way."

Georgia's next lowest output came in the 17-9 win over Florida, which has one of the nation's top five scoring defenses. The Bulldogs produced just 273 yards, but 121 came in their final two possessions, and Gurley pounded out 118 yards on a season-high 27 carries.

Against Alabama in the SEC championship game, the Bulldogs amassed 394 yards but were 5 shy of pulling out the victory.

"Coach Friend has done a great job," head coach Mark Richt said. "When you looked at those guys in the spring, we had a lot of work to do and a long way to go. They have come a long way. I'm not going to sit here and say they're a dominating bunch of guys, but they are a bunch of guys who know what they're doing and who to hit, and they play hard."

Said Lee: "Nobody wanted the offensive line to be the weak link. We worked hard every day to match the rest of the team so we could have an offense that produced the yards that it did."

Georgia's offensive line will be viewed as a strength for the 2013 season. All five starters return, as will Beard and the rest of the backups.

It will be a different perspective from the outside, but Friend plans on keeping things the same as he ventures into his third season in Athens.

"The goal doesn't change," Friend said. "We want to be better tomorrow than we are today, and that's the way we talk in our meeting room. I think that's kind of the way we'll look at it. They will be challenged the same, but this is a good group of kids who have challenged themselves.

"They know the importance in how they play affects our success, so I don't see it being a big difference."

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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