One of the biggest concerns for Georgia in Kirby’s second campaign is how the offensive line hopes to improve. It’s an over told football cliché that the game starts and ends up front, but in most cases, it’s more than a cliché and a genuine truth. Last season, Georgia’s offensive struggles started upfront, ending SEC title contention early.
The Dawgs needed to improve most in the short yardage situations on second and third down, as well as their pass protection. Last season Georgia struggled mightily in converting much needed first downs, which in turn hurt the defense on multiple occasions. Their pass protection last year was inadequate for a freshman to learn the offense on the fly with SEC defensive linemen constantly breathing down his neck.
Given the opportunity to showcase the improvements reported out of spring camp, the offensive line didn’t play to the levels previously reported.
“I didn’t see the same physicality from the offensive line [as the defensive line],” said Kirby Smart after the game.
The first team unit in black jerseys had the tougher assignment, going up against the Dawgs starting defensive front seven that returned almost all the starters from last year. The challenges blocking against Lorenzo Carter, Jonathan Ledbetter and company are going to be what Georgia faces on a week-in-week-out basis in the SEC.
Upfront, they’ll need to do better than they did on Saturday if the goal is to keep Jacob Eason upright and the running backs productive.
Their performance needs to also be judged in context with the intent behind the play calling. Both Georgia squads passed the ball a combined 63 times, in comparison to running the ball 37 times. Something Smart and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney probably don’t plan on doing on fall Saturday’s often.
A multitude of the drives in the scrimmage looked identical to last year’s inept offense. The black team line was unable to gain any leverage in the run game, unable to provide more than the minimum protection against the four-man rush and struggled against the six-man rush.
Last year’s offense owned a trademark on spearheading the running backs on dive and power handoffs into a pile of players without the slightest distinction of running lanes. That continued.
When they weren’t struggling with run-blocking last season, quarterback Jacob Eason was constantly looking down the barrel of SEC defenders firing away at him. Without being able to trust the protection, Eason was forced to throw off his back leg too often. That trend also carried over into the scrimmage.
The first team offense was stuffed for a total of negative three rushing yards in the first half, mostly the result of sacks counting against the stat line. Brian Herrien took the only carries, eight for a net of 12 yards. Eason was sacked twice and hurried on a number occasions.
On the flip side, the second team offense in red gained more leverage in the run game with their angle blocking opening bigger run lanes. In pass protection, they picked up the blocks on the edge that the first team squad didn’t, giving Fromm more comfort in the pocket.
The Red team’s stat line in the first half didn’t look much more impressive in terms of quantity, but in quality the difference was significant. Possessing the ball for 12 fewer snaps than the first team, the Red team did more with less. The leading rushers for red, Elijah Holyfield and Prather Hudson combined for 40 yards on 10 carries.
Averaging four yards per rush is the stuff offensive coordinators dream about. Now, although they looked better than the first unit, their production is taken with a grain of salt. Going up against the second team defense isn’t the same challenge that any of these guys will face against Auburn and Florida, if they crack the starting lineup.
Both sides improved slightly in the second half, improving in pass protection without the same improvement in run blocking. Lanes were still crowded and both defenses penetrated far too often for a sustainable offense. The pass rush from the edge also beat the tackles on too many occasions, forcing Eason out of the pocket and throwing on the run or from his back foot.
In the end, the second unit out gained the first unit in rushing yards by a shade short of 50 yards (not including the negative sack yardage). The first team defense sacked Jacob Eason five times, while the second unit only sacked Jake Fromm twice.
Defensively, the red unit could anticipate the overwhelming amount of passing calls and pin their ears back without worrying too much about the run. Still, when asked if Kirby was more concerned that his starting offensive line gave up five sacks or more content with his starting defensive front seven getting five sacks, Kirby had this to say:
“More concerned, always … We shouldn’t be giving up those sacks, that’s always a concern. Jacob knows that, and he’s got to take responsibility for some of those. Some of those were coverage sacks, he’s got to throw the ball on time, hit some of those check downs and get the backs the ball.”
The improvement in blocking in the second half wasn’t substantial enough to qualm the overall concerns going into next season. Overall, the performance wasn’t great for the offensive line, but Smart justified those struggles to the nature of the handcuffs that were placed on the play calling.
Still, simply put, nobody along the first team unit looked good enough to guarantee a starting job next season. Especially considering the amount of size and talent enrolling in the fall with the incoming freshman.
Most of the positions along the offensive will get injected with competition with the arrivals of top-ranked recruits Isaiah Wilson, Netori Johnson, D’ante Demery, Andrew Thomas and Juston Schaffer. Something to certainly keep a close eye on as the 2017 season’s kickoff approaches.