Velasco vital to Dawgs' success

ATHENS – The half dozen plays Fernando Velasco missed this season were too much for offensive line coach Stacy Searels to take.

Velasco, No. 23 Georgia's senior center, had to go to the bench during the Oklahoma State game due to a broken knee brace. It was not a crucial moment in the game and guard Chris Davis slid over immediately to take his spot, but Searels didn't want to think about what could happen to his young unit without Velasco.

"Coach Searels was like, ‘Call timeout. Bubba's out of the game,'" Coach Mark Richt said.

Richt didn't call timeout, and no disaster struck the Bulldogs, but that sideline reaction captures just how much Velasco means to Georgia. (Searels has refused to speak to the media this season.)

"If we didn't redshirt Fernando, just imagine where we'd be right now," Richt said.

Velasco, who was redshirted after his sophomore season, is one of two seniors on a line that features three first-time starters and three freshmen in the main rotation. Right tackle Chester Adams, the other senior, has taken care of his business on the field, but it's Velasco who has taken undisputed grasp of the leadership role.

"He's handled it beautifully," Richt said. "Some guys want to lead and aren't sure if anybody is following. He knows these guys are taking to him. They do listen and they do respond."

Velasco faces his first major test as a team leader this week in helping Georgia (1-1) bounce back from its first loss of the season and prepare for Division I-AA opponent Western Carolina (0-2).

"It's tough," he said, "but the main thing is we have to put it behind us. We know the talent that we have on offense, but we have to execute on each and every play. It's no different than we practice, throwing and catching and blocking. We've got to just carry that over to Saturdays in ball games."

Velasco is in his first year at center after playing guard for his first three seasons, and that's the perfect spot to take some of the leadership pressure off sophomore quarterback Matthew Stafford, Richt said.

"When you have a center who is the leader, that's great for your team," Richt said. "Let's say the quarterback gets sacked. The quarterback can come back and chew everybody out, but sometimes guys will resent that. But if you have a senior lineman who says, ‘That ain't happening again men, that's tremendous.'"

Velasco defers to Stafford in the huddle, he said.

"When he speaks in the huddle, I let all the focus be on him because everything starts with the quarterback," he said, "but definitely up front, with the offensive line, I take all the responsibility. I definitely take the stuff personally if it's not going the way it should go on the offensive line."

When Velasco does talk on the field or on the sideline, it's all positive reinforcement, he said.

"During the game, I wouldn't try to say something negative, just try to keep everybody's spirits up," he said.

As long as he stays on the field, his coaches' spirits will be just fine.

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