"I asked him before the game if he was nervous," senior lineman Clint Boling said. "He said, "Yeah." I told him it was all right to be nervous before that first snap. After that, it was just playing."
Gates' insertion into the starting lineup was a part of a shakeup along the offensive front against Tennessee. Boling, who had been played on the left side of the line, moved to right tackle. Junior Trinton Sturdivant, battling back from two major knee surgeries, got the start at left tackle, his first since the season-opener in 2009 against Oklahoma State.
"That's awesome for him to come back and get a fresh start," Boling said.
Although Gates and Sturdivant practiced with the No. 1 unit this week in practice, the starting lineup was not revealed until Saturday morning.
"Your guess was as good as mine," junior running back Caleb King said of the new starting group. "I knew he had been working with the No. 1 unit for some time, but I didn't know who was going to start the way they did this game."
The changes on the line brought forth a successful effort.
Quarterback Aaron Murray threw for two touchdowns and run for two more.
More importantly, Murray was only sacked twice.
"There was no pressure on me back there," Murray said. "I was able to make progressions, great reads and they opened up the running game. They did a great job."
Tennessee may be a struggling football team, but Georgia's play along the offensive line was encouraging regardless of the opponent, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. He gave encouraging words, but quickly followed with a critical statement.
"We've got to continue to improve our physicality up front," Bobo said. "We've got to play more physical at times, especially running the ball. Overall we gave Aaron a nice pocket. The one time he got sacked it was Aaron's fault, not getting rid of the ball fast enough."
Looking at the numbers, Bobo is justified by calling out the running game. Entering the fourth quarter, the Bulldogs had only 87 yards rushing. King and sophomore Washaun Ealey were averaging 2.5 yards a carry. Long runs during mop-up duty stretched the averages in Georgia's favor.
But the running game was not a necessity because of the Bulldogs' ability to pass. Junior receiver A.J. Green finished with six catches, 96 yards and one touchdown. Sophomore receiver Rantavious Wooten added another receiving score. Spreading the wealth, receiver Tavarres King, and tight ends Aron White and Orson Charles each added over 35 yards apiece.
The credit was divided between Murray and the receivers. But the line's play kept creeping into the conversation.
"Today the line just had some extra fire to them," King said.
"We're developing some nice depth there and we need to continue to fight and play hard," Bobo said. "That's the main thing. We have to keep believing and playing for each other."
As for the young Gates, the freshman has already earned the respect of his teammates. The last addition of the 2010 recruiting class, Gates was committed to Kentucky before Georgia called the day before National Signing Day. Ironically, Tennessee freshman receiver Da'Rick Rogers, who was committed to Georgia before changing his mind, created the open spot Gates so happily stepped into.
After hearing from the Bulldogs, Gates made the switch.
Heading into the season, Georgia's line was a perceived strength of the team, with depth and a full returning group of starters. With all the expectations and experience, Gates appeared headed for a redshirt.
"I thought he could help, but I didn't think he would be a guy that would help us," White said.
But after lackluster play and four losses, Gates was thrown into the starting unit in practice last week.
"He's a quiet guy," Green said. "He's not one to talk about things. He just goes out and plays and lets that do the talking."
And now he's in the starting lineup for what appears to be for a good long stay.
"The sky is the limit for that guy," White said of Gates. "He can run and he is smart. He's not a guy that is going to get out there and not know what to do. He may have to ask the guy next to him in certain situations, but he is sharp. He knows what's going on."