Recruiting catching up with Dawgs on O Line

ATHENS – Georgia coach Mark Richt is hoping for a cool night Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

He's wishing that for his offensive line, which will enter the 7:45 p.m. game against South Carolina with only six scholarship players ready to contribute. For the record, Richt probably will be happy. Game time temperature is expected to be in the mid-70s with a bearable humidity.

That might help this week, but it's not going to solve No. 12 Georgia's long-term offensive line issues, which include not only a lack of depth but also a distinct thinness in the middle.

Only four of the 14 linemen on the team are juniors or sophomores, and all four are guards.

A look back at the Richt era shows the dearth is attributable to two factors – a frustrating run of injuries and enough recruiting mistakes to notice.

"Those things rolled together, and we've found ourselves short at this position," Richt said. "There is no question that is the most critical position we have to recruit this year, offensive line and in particular offensive tackle."

Of the 26 offensive linemen signed by Richt in his six recruiting classes, 10 left early or are not with the team for reasons other than expired eligibility.

Injury has been the most noticeable factor. Five Bulldogs who could still be on the team had to give up the sport due to physical issues, and two current members, sophomore Zeb McKinzey and true freshman John Miller, are out indefinitely due to shoulder injuries.

Seven additional guys "would definitely make a difference, but you can't dwell on it," offensive line coach Neil Callaway said. "We've got what we've got."

Of those seven players, all but Josh Brock came to Georgia with pre-existing issues. That has led both Callaway and Richt to consider more careful screening of recruits before scholarships are offered.

"You've got to do it on the front end," Richt said. "You can't do it after signing day and then say, ‘Oh, um…'"

Currently, Georgia asks recruits to fill out a medical questionnaire and does further physical evaluation only if something comes up on the questionnaire or a coach knows of a specific problem. NCAA rules allow prospects to undergo any diagnostic test available to enrolled student-athletes, and the Bulldogs are exploring options to expand their testing, said Ron Courson, the team's head athletic trainer.

"I think this is a relatively new concept that I think everybody is looking into right now," he said.

South Carolina and Auburn currently give each prospect on campus a complete physical, Courson said, and he has spoken to officials at both schools about their procedures.

"The more information we have, it makes a difference," Courson said. "There may be some rare occasions where you find enough medical issues where we say, ‘Hey, we need to show extreme caution in offering this person (a scholarship).'"

While more testing is allowable, it may not be advisable, Callaway said. Coaches, who are constantly worried about any perception that could hurt them in recruiting, might be unwilling to ask prospects to go through more tests than other schools, he said.

"It's kind of a touchy situation," Callaway said.

There have been other touchy situations in the Bulldogs' offensive line recruiting.

Former coach Jim Donnan and his staff were lambasted for a two-year period in which they signed just one offensive lineman, but the Bulldogs current staff signed only three in 2004 and 2005 combined, which is an improvement but not much of one.

"There have been a couple years where I'm like, surely they're going to jump in the boat this year, and they didn't," Richt said. "Maybe we didn't have a good enough Plan B, but sometimes Plan B means you have a guy in there that can't really do it either."

A few of the Plan As who fell through: Chris Scott (Tennessee) and Duke Robinson (Oklahoma) in 2005, Courtney Abbott (Florida State) in 2004, and, most noticeably, Marcus McNeil (Auburn) in 2002. All were in-state recruits who chose another elite program.

"A couple years ago, we missed out on a couple guys that I really thought we were going to get and we didn't get them," Callaway said, "but there again I'm not going to dwell on that."

Richt remains surprised to this day that more offensive line recruits haven't seen the need at his school and taken scholarship offers.

"But other people have needs, too," he said. "Offensive line is just one of those places where maybe it's tough for anybody to keep a full load ready to go."

South Carolina can attest to that. The Gamecocks (1-0) played just five offensive linemen last week against Mississippi State and may do the same Saturday.

Callaway insists Georgia will be fine on the offensive line this year as long it avoids a significant injury. The real problem may not be felt until 2007.

"Next year is probably going to be similar to our 2003 season," Richt said, "playing more young guys than you'd like to."

The Bulldogs gave up 47 sacks in 2003.

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