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Assume the position: Offensive Line

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Can a talented Bulldog line live up to the preseason hype and lead the Red and Black to the promised land?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 01 SEC Championship Game - Georgia v Alabama
The monster under your bed has nightmares about Isaiah Wilson.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Kirby Smart took over the University of Georgia head coaching job offensive line coach Sam Pittman was one of his first hires. And with good reason. “The Pitt Boss” is widely acclaimed as one of the best technical coaches in the country. He also possesses a quirky, enthusiastic personality that recruits love, and which belies exactly how tenacious Pittman is on the recruiting trail.

This winter Georgia rewarded Pittman by making him the highest paid offensive line coach in the nation at $825,000 per year.

And a straw poll of UGA fans would probably reveal that most of them think he’s worth every penny and more. Pittman is now four classes into his rebuild of the Red and Black offensive line. And the results continue to impress. Once again in 2018 Georgia led the SEC in rushing offense per game (238.8 yards per game). That was all the more impressive given the loss of 2017 leaders and current NFL standouts Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.

For 2019 Georgia will once again be replacing some talent in the backfield. Bruising tailback Elijah Holyfield is moving on, but starter D’Andre Swift and leading contributor Brian Herrien remain. Also back are promising youngsters James Cook and Zamir White, along with versatile freshman Kenny McIntosh. Up front blocking for them will be a Bulldog offensive line unit that is as experienced as it is talented.

The starting five looks to be more experienced than just about any unit in recent Bulldog memory. While the Red and Black will lose center Lamont Gaillard and his 42 consecutive starts, it appears he will be replaced by sophomore Trey Hill (6’4, 330), who started the SEC Championship Game and Sugar Bowl, with contribution from redshirt freshman Warren Ericson (6’4, 305). Hill has the potential to take over the job and not relinquish it for some time, joining the Bulldogs’ recent run of NFL centers.

There’s also five star true freshman Clay Webb (6’3, 290). Webb is a little lighter than he may need to be to be an every down option in the SEC, and will likely see action at guard initially. But he has excellent feet, quick hands and if he does in fact see time snapping it will be a great omen for the future.

The tackle spots are spoken for, with junior Andrew Thomas (6’5, 320) manning the left tackle spot for the third season running, and Isaiah Wilson (6’7, 340) returning to start his second season at right tackle. Thomas is garnering substantial buzz as a possible first round draft pick in 2020 and an Outland Trophy favorite.

Wilson, who came to campus a bit doughy, has evolved into nothing short of a physical specimen. It would not be out of the question for him to join Thomas to give the Athenians a pair of early 2020 NFL picks, and some more quality advertising for Sam Pittman’s Finishing School for Large, Athletic Boys (TM).

If any spots are truly open for competition, it’s at guard. Junior Ben Cleveland (6’6, 335) emerged in 2018 as a key road grader in the run game. The Bulldog rushing attack took a step back when he missed six games with a broken leg in 2018. Keeping “Big Ben” healthy could be one of the keys to the UGA offense in 2019.

Fellow junior Solomon Kindley (6’4, 335) also brings significant starting experience to bear and should man the other guard spot. Kindley has played in every game of the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and was recognized as one of the Dawgs’ most improved offensive linemen at the 2018 team awards gala. However rising sophomore Cade Mays (6’6, 318) started 11 games in 2018, earning freshman All-SEC honors, and will also get a long look at guard and elsewhere on the offensive front.

Behind those likely starters are a handful of former blue chip recruits looking to break into the rotation. Sophomore Jamaree Salyer (6’4, 325) played in 13 of 14 games as a true freshman, and if anyone is going to break the Cleveland/Kindley/Mays tri-opoly at guard it’s likely to be Salyer.

Also at guard junior Justin Shaffer (6’4, 330) will be looking to move further into the rotation. Shaffer has seen significant action during his time in Athens, playing in 8 games as a true freshman and 12 as a sophomore in 2018. While it would be surprising to see him move past Cleveland, Kindley, Mayes and Salyer into a starting spot, Shaffer will still be a key part of the rotation, and a major player in 2020.

Further down the list of potential contributors are players coming off redshirt seasons or who will simply be looking to break through. Redshirt freshman Owen Condon (6’7, 315) is coming off a redshirt season in which he saw action in 3 games following a high school injury. Senior D’Marcus Hayes (6’5, 315) redshirted in 2017 and played in only 4 contests in 2018. This will be his last shot to make a bigger impact in Athens.

Introducing an element of uncertainty to the offensive line depth chart will be another couple of 2019 recruits looking to jump in line. Tackle Xavier Truss (6’6, 315) comes to Georgia as a national top 20 recruit at his position. Truss is thickly built and, while he will need to continue to add good weight and work on his pass protection technique, looks to have a bright future in the Classic City.

Brunswick native Warren McClendon (6’4, 318) was listed as a tackle in recruiting rankings but could theoretically play any position along the offensive front. With a thick lower body, good feet, and long arms McClendon may be as close to a “sleeper” as a national top 200 recruit can be.

Assuming that Thomas, Cleveland, Kindley, Hill, and Wilson are the starting five when Georgia opens the season against Vanderbilt on August 31st, they will bring with them 80 combined starts. That’s a ton of experience, especially given that so much of it will have come in a pair of SEC Championship Games, a Rose Bowl, a Sugar Bowl, and a National Championship Game. With junior quarterback Jake Fromm returning for his third season under center, the 2019 Georgia Bulldogs will have as much big game experience returning as any team in the country. If that deep, experienced offensive line group can stay healthy, they could carry the Red and Black deep into the college football title hunt once again. Until later...

Go ‘Dawgs!!!