Rolling with the Punches on the OL

ATHENS – When the subject of yet another transition on the offensive line was brought up, Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland just chuckled.

The laugh wasn't meant to set a tone of amusement, however, and when he caught himself, he almost felt bad for offering such a trite reaction. The truth is, he said, the situation has just gotten a bit too absurd to be upset about anymore.

"It's not funny at all," Southerland said. "It's weird. It's been a weird season like that."

Right tackle Justin Anderson injured his foot against Kentucky last week and will miss Saturday's game against Auburn – the fourth starter to miss a game this season from a group that was already short on experience.

Anderson will be replaced in the lineup by either Josh Davis or Kiante Tripp, or possibly a combination of both. Two months ago, that news might have been enough to send a shiver through the Georgia locker room. These days, however, it's just par for the course.

"It just seems like each week something else happens," said left tackle Clint Boling, who missed Georgia's opener while serving a one-game suspension. "There's nothing really you can do about it. You've just got to keep playing."

That's exactly what the Bulldogs have done so far this year, but it hasn't been easy.

Projected left tackle Trinton Sturdivant tore ligaments in his knee in fall camp, ending his season. That resulted in Kiante Tripp, the projected starter at right tackle, to move to the left side. Davis started the first game of the season at right tackle before Boling returned to action and assumed the role in Week 2.

Two weeks later, Tripp and freshman guard Cordy Glenn were benched, Boling shifted from tackle to guard, Anderson earned his first start, and freshman Ben Jones took over at center.

A few weeks after that, left tackle Vince Vance suffered a season-ending knee injury, Boling was moved to fill that spot, Glenn returned to the starting lineup, and Tripp, who had just been moved to tight end, was swapped back to right tackle where he began the season, this time in a reserve role.

Those headaches don't even include Chris Davis, who has played three different positions on the line this season while battling a painful hip injury.

The constant shuffling has been enough to confound even head coach Mark Richt, who often has to repeat the line position by position just to remember who his starters are.

"It is interesting to see how productive we have been," Richt said. "It wasn't like every single game we've put it together, but we've put it together more times than not. It's just been a good job of Coach (Stacy) Searels doing it, and the guys just fighting and scrapping."

The almost weekly changes may have actually made this latest injury a bit easier on the Bulldogs. After all, they are at least used to the adversity at this point.

Against Kentucky, Georgia's line continued to play well even after Anderson left the game, and quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno both accumulated numbers so impressive that Jones, the true freshman center, earned the SEC's offensive lineman of the week honors.

"I think we still played well, we still moved the ball really well and protected Matthew," Moreno said. "It hurts to see people go down, but there's people behind them that can get the job done."

It's not hard for the Bulldogs to have confidence in the stopgap solutions at this point. After all, they aren't counting on anyone who hasn't done it before.

Josh Davis started against Georgia Southern and played throughout the game last week, and Tripp, despite his recent struggles and tumultuous season, has three starts under his belt.

"Both of them have played some big games this year, so I feel comfortable with both of them being in there, and I think they'll do a good job," Boling said.

The task won't be easy.

This week, Georgia's makeshift line will face a fierce and refreshed Auburn defensive front that will be bolstered by the return of three top players – Sen'Derrick Marks, Antonio Coleman and Tez Doolittle – who have been out with various injuries.

Even with their multitude of bumps and bruises, the Tigers have allowed just four rushing touchdowns this season.

"I'd say their strength is probably their front four," Stafford said. "They've got some linebackers that can run like they do every year, but when those guys are healthy up front, they're pretty potent."

Boling said the line's attitude this season has been to simply relax and roll with the punches, and that's the same mind-set they'll bring to the table this week. Auburn may have a front that offers a big challenge, but that's not where the line will focus.

"We're just mainly worried about what we can do as an offensive line," Boling said. "I feel like when we play well, we can really block anybody, and as long as we have five guys out there, we'll be alright."

It hasn't hurt that Moreno and Stafford have so routinely made plays even when the line didn't do a seamless job of opening running lanes or protecting its quarterback. That's just how it has had to work this season, Stafford said.

Every player on offense has had to improve their game to make up for the injuries and adversity on the line, and this week, he said, won't be any different.

"Guys are going to have to step up," Stafford said. "We've done a good job of it all year. The young guys have been able to step in there and be productive, and I don't expect it to be any different this week."

OFFENSIVE LINE TIMELINE

Spring – Georgia ends spring practice with a tentative line that includes (from left to right) Trinton Sturdivant, Vince Vance, Chris Davis, Clint Boling and Kiante Tripp – with Vance, a junior, the oldest starter.

July 3 – Boling is suspended two games by head coach Mark Richt after he was charged with DUI. His suspension was later reduced to one game after he pled to a lesser charge.

August 11 – Sturdivant, who started every game at left tackle in 2007, is lost for the season with a knee injury.

Fall camp – The coaching staff tries several combinations on the line, but finally decides to move Tripp from right tackle to left to fill in for Sturdivant, while freshman Cordy Glenn impresses enough to land a starting job.

Aug. 30 – Georgia opens its season with Tripp at left tackle, Vance at left guard, Chris Davis at center, Glenn at right guard and Josh Davis at right tackle. Josh Davis is replaced by Boling a week later.

Sept. 20 – Georgia sends Tripp and Glenn to the bench for its game against Arizona State. Boling moves to left guard, Vance to left tackle, freshman Ben Jones takes over at center, while Chris Davis and Justin Anderson work the right side.

Sept. 27 – After Georgia's top two tight ends suffer shoulder injuries, Tripp is moved from offensive line to tight end.

Oct. 11 – Vance injures his knee in the first half against Tennessee and is finished for the season. Boling moves to his fourth position on the line this season: Left tackle. He plays well enough to be named the SEC's lineman of the week. Meanwhile, Tripp is moved back to the offensive line once again.

Oct. 18 – For the second straight game, Georgia's makeshift line doesn't allow a sack. To date, the Bulldogs have taken just eight sacks for the season – the same number of different players to have started a game on the line.

Oct. 23 – Reserve guard Chris Little, highly touted coming out of high school, decides to transfer from Georgia after suffering a litany of injuries in his brief career.

Nov. 8 – Anderson suffers a foot injury against Kentucky that will keep him out between two and three weeks. Josh Davis fills in the rest of the game and is projected to split time with Tripp until Anderson can return. Jones earns SEC lineman of the week honors for his performance against the Wildcats.


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