Are You Panicked About the Offensive Line?
The current wisdom and consensus opinion about the 2003 edition of the Georgia Bulldogs is that they will suffer on offense, due to the loss of the top six linemen: Jon Stinchcomb, Kevin Breedlove, George Foster, Alex Jackson, Ian Knight & Kareem Marshall. Those six had a combined 146 starts in the Red and Black. It is rare that a team loses an entire line, and the sting is even worse since there are no upperclassmen on the roster to replace them. That bears repeating: there are no upper class offensive linemen on the roster, at all. Let's not sugarcoat it, this is a very big concern; one that cannot be easily rationalized or talked around. Sure, we will miss Musa Smith, but he wouldn't have done much without the line making strides. That might have played a big role in his decision. There are some questions that need answers in a hurry.
How did we get in this mess?
If anyone still wants to sing the praises of Jim Donnan, you will have your work cut out for you on the issue of offensive line recruiting. We just didn't sign enough linemen in Donnan's last two classes. The few (two) we did sign had to play as true freshmen because of the busts we signed in Donnan's first two classes. Here is the breakdown:
Kevin Breedlove- one of the top OL recruits in the nation. Played and started as a true freshman when Reggie Stargill's knees just couldn't go. Started ever since.
Alex Jackson- one of the top OL recruits in the region. The prior staff wasted a year trying to make a tackle out of a prototypical guard. Played as a true freshman, a little more as a sophomore, and started as a junior and senior.
Josh Billue- many people proclaimed him "the top OL recruit in Alabama!" He wasn't. Didn't stick around.
Chris Hewitt- not recruited as an OL, but ended up there after a couple of years. Pretty highly regarded. Played some, but has chosen to not return for his fifth year. Strange. Always seemed to do well when given a chance.
__________________. Not a darned one. We went after Jason Respert, Sean Young and Maurice Mitchell in the state. We went after Alex Barron, Max Starks and Alfio Randall out of state. We didn't even try for Justin Smiley until it was too late. We missed on Nate French. Respert and Young were alleged superstars who probably weren't worth the trouble we went to. To not sign a single OL is just pitiful.
So, there we have it. Two offensive linemen of any value over a two year period. Jim Donnan was very good at bringing in talent at the skill positions. Offensive line was let go.
Enter Mark Richt. He immediately saw the problem, talked about it, and took steps to try and solve it. It didn't help that 2001 was not a great year for offensive linemen. When Von Ewing and Mo Mitchell 2, Electric Bugaloo are the top two targets, conditions are less than favorable. I think the brand new staff made the best of a bad situation. We missed on Eric Broe (last seen not blocking Will Thompson in the Sugar Bowl) and Kyle Wallace (who spurned us to go to some second or third tier program in Atlanta that we have destroyed the last two years), but the new staff was just too late to make up the necessary ground.
Russ Tanner- the top center prospect in the South by some estimations.
Reggie Weeks- considered a "sleeper" with good upside. A bad knee injury has hampered his development.
Dennis Roland- a 6'9" project. Not an immediate contributor by any stretch of the imagination when signed.
James Redmond- failed to qualify.
Gerald Anderson- we all seemed to think he would play guard. Maybe he will end up there one day, but he is doing pretty well at defensive tackle.
That's a solid center, a knee injury, a project, an academic casualty, and a defensive player, for those keeping score. 2002 was do or die on the line of scrimmage. The problem is that in these days of severe scholarship limits, you can't just load up at one position. Doing so just creates problems elsewhere. Well, we loaded up as best you can these days.
Max Jean-Gilles- star recruit.
Bartley Miller- an early commitment that is taken a bit for granted.
Josh Brock- solid in-state prospect.
Randall Swoopes- legacy with good potential.
Dan Inman- bit of a project, unknown until late in the recruiting process.
Michael Turner- tight end who might grow into OL like McGill and Knight before him.
Antonio Mercier- very talented player whose career is now on hold due to diabetes.
A very solid group. We missed on Derrick Morris and Brandon Jefferies, but who's counting? Morris had baggage, and Jeffries made a reputation out of pancaking 190 lbs. opponents. We got the kind of OL class we would hope for every year.
That's the story of how we got to the point of having no offensive linemen in the junior or senior classes. Nobody from the 1999 class redshirted, and we didn't sign anyone in 2000. Not a good state of affairs. We also had a revolving door at offensive line coach. Scelfo gave way to Watson, who passed away; Adkins took over for a moment, before giving way to Marrone, who left after a year. 2002 was the first time an OL coach returned in five years.
There are some things going for us on the OL, and they are worth listing.
Coaching- Coach Neil Callaway has been at this a long time. I don't share the opinion that he is one of the very best in the business, but he is a solid coach and recruiter. The players we have on the OL have known only him as a position coach. Everyone knows what to expect from everyone else. That will help.
Strength and Conditioning- Our young players are in a very demanding program. Coach Dave Van Halanger is one of the very best. What is often lost in the debates about the S&C program is that a program is more than a piece of paper that tells you how many reps and at what weight. Just about any weight lifting program will put on muscle. Motivation and effort make the real difference. Anyone worried that our guys won't work hard in the off-season? I'm not.
The offensive system- We don't really ask our linemen to knock people off the line much, except in short yardage situations. Our rushing attack is largely based on draw plays. We do some zone blocking, which will be tricky for inexperienced players, but our attack is mostly finesse. The passing attack employs a lot of play action, which will help. Our QB takes a very deep drop, which tends to pull the DEs too far upfield. This should keep our young tackles from being bull-rushed too often.
Talent- Our players are talented. Jean-Gilles is a monster. Brock has already shown he can play. Tanner looks as good as the guy he is replacing, and he might not hold off Swoopes for the starting job. Miller has a wealth of ability. Roland and Inman have the physical tools to play on Sundays in a few years. There is as much natural ability here as there is in the six seniors we lose, there just isn't the experience.
Our defensive line- Our guys will face opponents at least 12 times next year. They will face our own defensive linemen hundreds of times between now and the Clemson game. Our DL is big and talented. They stunt and blitz a lot in scrimmages, and the staff emphasizes competition in practice. Blocking what might be the best DL in the conference is very good training.
After those positives, I should probably quit, because I am feeling a little better. If this part depresses you, go back and read the positives again before proceeding.
Coaching- Yes, we have a good OL coach, but didn't you expect a better performance from the line this year? They were a sieve early on. Remember, Greene was pummeled in the Clemson game, and suffered a broken hand. Shockley was hurt scrambling in the SC game. It is possible that five of those linemen will end up in the NFL. The line seemed better in 2001, with mostly the same people.
Strength and Conditioning- Not much of a negative here. The only problem is that most of these guys will have only been in the program a year. They will make some progress. Will it be enough?
The offensive system- If six seniors couldn't get it done, how can a collection of freshmen and sophomores? False start penalties and missed assignments don't usually decrease with younger players.
Talent- Talent isn't of much use if you don't know who to block, or can't remember the snap count in a big game. These guys aren't battle-tested.
This could easily go under Positives, but it deserves its own heading. When fans express opinions about a particular part of their team, they seldom ask a very important question: Compared to what? When that question is asked, it usually takes the form of comparing ones own offensive line, for instance, to the offensive line of the opposition. This is about as big a waste of time as you can imagine. Our offensive line will not be blocking the offensive lines of South Carolina, Clemson, et al. So, what do our top conference opponents lose and return on their defensive lines and front sevens?
South Carolina- They lose Moore, Quinn, and Lemon. They also lose their coordinator. New system, new players learning it.
LSU- They lose five of their front seven, from a defense that seemed to fade down the stretch.
Alabama- They lose Jarrett Johnson, Kindall Moore and Kenny King. They also change coordinators, and Coach Kines is not known for throwing a lot of looks and blitzes at you.
Tennessee- They lose their top four defensive tackles. Their ends are coming back from injuries, and they lose two good linebackers in Whiteside and Moore. Their other linebackers are coming back from injuries.
Florida- They lose their top three defensive tackles, an end, and two linebackers. They also are replacing their defensive coordinator, though they replace a good one with an even better one. Let's hope Zook is very "hands on" with the defense.
Auburn- I'd rather not look at this one. They will be very tough up front on defense. Thankfully, this game is late in the year at home.
Auburn is the only group that strikes any fear in my heart. The rest of them will be a matter of pitting our young guys against their young guys. Since we are not without talent, and neither are they, it will be a coaching battle. Before you go postal over our offensive line, consider that they will be blocking similarly inexperienced players much of the time.
Tomorrow, Charles Stephenson will take a look at what Georgia fans can expect from the current group of Bulldogs.