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Position Preview: Dawgs Offensive Line Is Deep And Talented Despite Loss Of Four Starters

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Sugar Bowl - Georgia v Baylor Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We continue our preview of Georgia Bulldog position groups with the unit that has the most stars to replace, and perhaps the most young talent to plug into the lineup.

Some Literal Big Losses Up Front For The Dawgs

Georgia’s Offensive Line deservedly got the type of press in 2019 that’s normally reserved for the guys who throw and catch the ball. The Dawgs had the biggest line in college football, and it was anchored by first-round NFL draft picks Andrew Thomas and Isiah Wilson at left and right tackle. Left guard Solomon Kindley left for the NFL as well. In one of the more bizarre college football developments in recent years, sometimes starter Cade Mays left UGA for Knoxville after his father sued the University of Georgia over an incident that resulted in the partial loss of his pinky. Kevin Mays claims the injury effected his ability to earn wages and resulted in the loss of love, companionship, comfort, encouragement, support and sexual relations in his marriage.

Three starters leaving early for the draft was gonna hurt. Then a column conspired with a Mity-Lite brand folding chair to result in four early departures upon the offensive line. So where does the Dawgs turn on the offensive line now?

Coaching

Matt Luke is entering his first year as Georgia’s offensive line coach after taking over for the departed Sam Pittman after the Sugar Bowl. Luke was only available because he had just been fired following Ole Miss’s loss to the other Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl. His energy was noticeable on the sidelines during the victory over Baylor, and players have spoken highly of the intensity and positivity he brings to practices. Luke is on a two-year contract, a rarity for Georgia assistants, and you can read that as a big vote of confidence by Smart.

While Sam Pittman’s bonafides as a recruiter were legendary in Athens, Luke’s fiery personality probably gels a bit better with Smart. Luke started his tenure with some huge recruiting wins by retaining the commitments of Tate Ratledge, Broderick Jones, Chad Lindberg and Sedrick Van Pran. In addition to keeping the headliners of the class committed, Luke also did a great job of snagging Cameron Kinnie, Austin Blaske and Devin Willock

What Will Change Under Monken?

Well, that’s the million dollar question. The moment Kirby Smart arrived at Georgia he made bulking up the lines a priority. Looking at the measurables on the Bulldog roster, there’s some considerable bulk. There’s barely a soul under 300 pounds, and it reads like an all-star lineup of guys who could put an all-you-can-eat buffet out of business.

Under Pittman and offensive coordinators Jim Chaney and James Coley the Dawgs played a lot of bully ball. Georgia would lean on teams for four quarters in the run game and let all that beef wear down the defensive line. By the fourth quarter, the Dawgs were often running roughshod over opponents.

Todd Monken has spent the last few years as an offensive coordinator in the NFL, so he’s no stranger to working with big lineman. That being said, he historically runs a system that favors more athletic lineman who can get upfield fast and have good lateral quickness. That could lead to some surprises when the opening day lineup is chosen.

We broke down some of Monken’s past blocking schemes on The Battle Hymnal a couple weeks back, and you can check that out below.

Returning Starters

The only starter left along the line from 2019 is 6’4” 330 pound center Trey Hill. The junior is the anchor on Georgia’s line, and he has appeared in all 28 games the Bulldogs have played since arriving on campus prior to the 2018 season. The Junior was 2nd team All-SEC last season, and is on the pre-season watch list for the Outland trophy.

Besides Hill, the Georgia offensive lineman with the most experience is Ben Cleveland. He started seven games in 2019, and saw action in thirteen before sitting out the Sugar Bowl due to a suspension. The 6’6” 330 pound Cleveland is a redshirt senior, and he would have been an every game starter on almost any other line in the country over the last few years. The mercurial Cleveland is built like a mix between a superhero and a late-80’s professional wrestler. Over the last three seasons Cleveland has had some great moments where it looked like he was on the cusp of asserting himself as an anchor along the line. Those moments have been offset by some performances where he looked less than fully motivated and a suspension for the Sugar Bowl is the kind of thing that makes it easy for critics to question Cleveland’s level of dedication. Georgia will need Cleveland to get the most out of his many physical gifts in 2020. If he can emerge as a leader for a line that will lack the experience 2019’s had that will be a great sign for the Dawgs. Cleveland looks to be the starter at right guard barring any surprises.

After spending the 2017 and 2018 seasons as a reserve offensive lineman, senior Justin Shaffer was blossoming before our eyes in 2019. His first crunch time college snaps came during the second half of the Notre Dame game, and Shaffer helped open up some nice holes for D’Andre Swift. His performance so impressed the Georgia coaches that he earned a start the next week against Tennessee and ended up playing every snap. A sprained neck came in the South Carolina game, and stole the rest of a would be breakout season away from Shaffer.

Now healthy, you can expect him to start at left guard in 2020.

Plenty Of Talent In The Wings

In every other era of Georgia Football, the loss of four starters would have resulted in a massive regression on the offensive line. Fortunately for the 2020 Bulldogs, the Kirby Smart era is not like any other in Georgia history.

Georgia under Kirby Smart has recruited as well or better than any team in the country, and the Dawgs have recruited the offensive line especially well. Let’s take a look at where UGA’s oline recruiting ranks in the league.

247 Sports offensive line rankings 2016-2020
DawgSports/The Battle Hymnal

Georgia has more blue-chip talent than it can play on a given down, and talent can do things that no amount of experience can.

Tackles

Junior Jamaree Salyer only has a couple starts under his belt, but the 6’4” 325 pound Junior has seen lots of game action over the last two seasons and played well as a starter at right tackle against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. Judging from Kirby Smart’s comments thus far in camp, Salyer seems like the potential starter who is most entrenched in his position. You can expect him to start at left tackle when the Dawgs open against Arkansas on September 26th.

The right tackle position is fully up for grabs, but as of Georgia’s most recent scrimmage it appears Owen Condon might have the inside track to the starting spot. Chalk this up as a slight upset if it happens. Signing as part of Georgia’s 2018 class, the three-star Condon didn’t enter the Classic City with the same hype as some of Georgia’s recent blue-chip recruits along the line, and has been a bit of a forgotten man in the Georgia rotation since arriving on campus. The Oklahoma City native hasn’t been healthy for most of his Bulldog career, and he only played fifteen snaps in 2019. At 6’7” and 310 pounds, Condon looks the part on paper. His emergence could be partially due to his mobility. Condon is a bit lighter than most of Georgia’s tackles, and reportedly dropped 3% of his body fat this summer.

Condon is being pushed by redshirt freshman Warren McClendon, a Brunswick native and the cousin of former UGA receiver Bryan McClendon. McClendon enrolled early, joining the team in January of 2019, and that experience looks to be paying off. He was the 235th ranked prospect nationally according to 247 sports. If things don’t work out at tackle, McClendon could become the utility lineman for this Georgia squad. At 6’4” and 320 pounds, McClendon’s frame would translate well at the guard position.

McClendon was ranked below fellow four-star and class of 2019 signee, Xavier Truss. The 6’7’ Rhode Island native was thought to be in contention to take the starting job at right tackle, and he still might be, but Smart hasn’t mentioned him as a contender as of late.

Instead of Truss, it is true freshman Tate Ratledge that Smart has mentioned as being in contention for the right tackle spot as of late. Ratledge is out of the Darlington School in Rome, and was ranked as a five-star and the #2 tackle in Georgia.

Ratledge was half of Georgia’s in-state coup at tackle, and he is joined by consensus All-American and fellow five-star Broderick Jones. Jones is so gifted that it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the best athlete in the unit. He is the second-highest rated offensive lineman Georgia has signed during Kirby Smart’s tenure. Jones didn’t come out of high-school as technically polished as most lineman with a five-star ranking, but it’s likely only a matter of time before he’s a starter. A summer leg injury makes the odds of him being a significant contributor to start the season even longer, but when he puts it all together Jones will be a nightmare for SEC defensive ends.

Texas native Chad Lindberg also signed with the Dawgs in the 2020 class. The big 6’6” 315 pound tackle was an Under Armor All-America, and should be a factor in the future, however there hasn’t been much buzz about him thus far in fall camp.

Guards

The starting spots look to belong to Cleveland and Shaffer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some talented youngsters pushing them for playing time.

Redshirt freshman Clay Webb was the number one center in the country coming out of high-school. He enrolled in January of 2019 and was named Georgia’s Scout Team Player of the year last season. Webb saw some snaps against Murray State and Georgia Tech, but remains an unknown with tons of potential. At 6’3’ and 290 pounds, Webb has been getting 2nd-team reps at left guard.

Also getting reps at both guard spots is Netori Johnson. Johnson was a heralded high-schooler who is now going into his redshirt junior season. He spent last season as a reserve defensive lineman, even recording a sack against Georgia Tech. Johnson still has plenty of physical gifts, and it would be great to see him crack the rotation before his time in the Classic City is through.

Warren Ericson appears to be a big part of Georgia’s future plans on the interior of the line. The only question is how soon the future will come. The redshirt sophomore played every snap against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. Right now he appears to be Trey Hill’s backup at center, and he is likely the next man up at either guard spot behind Cleveland and Shaffer. If either player loses a step or suffers an injury, you can expect to see the 305 pound Ericson take the field in their place. It remains to be seen how Matt Luke will rotate his offensive lineman, but Ericson should see meaningful snaps in 2020.

The last player to keep an eye on for 2020 is Sedrick Van Pran. Van Pran was the nation’s #1 center in the 2020 recruiting class, and could be the starter in the middle after Trey Hill departs following the season. We might not see Van Pran taking a ton of meaningful snaps this year, but his development is important to the future of the line. Van Pran was lauded for his leadership in high-school, and he could be a key figure for the Dawgs in the early 2020’s.

Freshman Chad Lindberg, Cameron Kinnie, Austin Blaske and Devin Willock could be contributors in the future, but should be mostly developmental projects this season. Should is the key word there, because with Covid-19 and a unit full of very gifted athletes, there’s no telling who could emerge in a key moment.

Final Thoughts

The talent is plentiful in the offensive line room. That’s important to any team any year. In a season where Covid-19 could cause players to miss games, Georgia’s recent recruiting could turn into a major asset. The line is always a game of musical chairs, and we could see guys playing different positions than what is expected. It will be key for Matt Luke, Todd Monken and Kirby Smart to find not just the best five players, but five who can gel quickly and grasp the protections and blocking schemes that Luke and Monken install. If they do, it will give Georgia a chance to make a run at a SEC Title and a College Football Playoff spot.