The thing about spring intrasquad games that match the first-string offense against the first-string defense is that no matter which side wins, it’s going to raise concerns.
If the starting offense runs up the score, you worry about the defense. If the defense prevails, you wonder if your offense is all it’s cracked up to be.
Going into spring practice, most Georgia fans probably were more worried about the rebuilding effort on the defense, particularly the defensive line, than with the offense, which returns all but one of last year’s starters from a record-setting unit.
But after the defense-led Black team won the G-Day game, a lot of questions have been raised about the subpar effort given by the starting offensive line that played for the Reds.
ESPN analyst and former offensive lineman Ed Cunningham has probably been the most negative, saying the Dogs’ starters “played horribly.”
“If I was Mark Richt,” Cunningham said, “I’d be very happy about my defense at this moment. But going into a schedule that starts with Clemson and then goes into the SEC, if I’m Georgia, I’m very concerned about the performance of my offensive line.”
Most critics haven’t gone that far, but when the Bulldogs returned to the practice field Tuesday offensive line coach Will Friend had two of the starters whose effort had most been questioned, John Theus and Kenarious Gates, working with the second-stringers.
It seems likely this was more a reprimand for those two players rather than a permanent demotion, but the message was pretty loud and clear. As the Athens Banner-Herald reported, Friend was not happy with the nine sacks given up at G-Day, even if offensive coordinator Mike Bobo did generously lay the blame for some of them on quarterbacks holding the ball too long.
Friend said he didn’t think the starting offense “played with enough effort” and “didn’t play physical enough, didn’t play with the kind of effort we expected out of them.”
Theus may have made the SEC All-Freshman team while starting every game at right tackle last year, but after experimenting with the player at left tackle some this spring, Friend saw plenty of room for improvement. “We’d like for him to play better,” the assistant coach said.
Friend is pretty sure his returning interior linemen — center David Andrews and guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette (who missed spring drills with a shoulder injury) will hold on to their starting spots. But he warned tackles Theus and Gates: “They better be one of the top five or they won’t play. Both of them have got to play better. They know that, and we’ll go from there.”
Last season, it was the starting defense, which was loaded with NFL prospects who elected to return for another year of college ball, that was expected to be worldbeaters. Unfortunately, much of the time they seemed complacent and didn’t live up to their billing.
This year, there’s lot of young, inexperienced talent on the defense and the overall impression from the spring is that they’re hungry and battling for playing time, which paid off in the G-Day game.
It’s still far from certain who’ll wind up as the starters on Georgia’s defensive line, though Mike Thornton seems to be the leader at nose guard, but there appears to be some depth developing there. That can only be a good thing, as last year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and then-DL coach Rodney Garner tended to keep the starters in too long, rather than rotating snaps, resulting in the line wearing down in the second half, particularly against the run. New DL coach Chris Wilson has vowed to play more defensive linemen this year.
Meanwhile, it appears the Georgia coaching staff is trying to avoid having the veteran offense suffer the same sort of letdown seen with last year’s defensive starters.
Even Richt, who pronounced himself generally pleased with the spring progress of his team, seemed to be trying to light a bit of a motivational fire under the offensive line.
“Is the offensive line as hungry this year as they were a year ago?,” Richt said at his post-spring game press conference. “I don’t know. We’re trying to create that hunger by letting them know you’ve got to earn it. You’ve got to earn it again.”
Richt said he hopes “that the offense understands that last year was last year, and you can’t say, ‘Well, we were really good last year, we don’t lose many guys so therefore we’re going to be great this year.’ That’s not always the case.”
“Coming out of this spring, we still don’t know who will play where and who will start,” the head coach said. “We have a good idea who is getting ready. But in terms of starting positions, I can’t think of a year where we’ve had more uncertainty. I feel like we’ve got the right ingredients and the right talent base. It’s just a matter of who wins it and if they’re mature enough to play well early enough with the way the season begins.”
Last year, Richt noted, Georgia was simply worried about having enough players to field a starting OL. This year, “we’ve got more guys and it becomes, which five will it be? We’ve got six, seven, eight, maybe nine guys who can play.”
His challenge to his players: “If you’re working out this summer thinking you’ve got something nailed down, you better recheck your thinking. We’re going to have 29 practices in the fall and probably about at least 20 of them before we nail down who’s going to start across the board. It’s going to be a lot of competition.”
I like that approach and I think it will pay off in the long run.
COACH BUSTS SOME MOVES
Besides the offensive line and a big day for receiver Jonathan Rumph, the thing most fans were talking about coming out of the G-Day game last week was that “Dawg Bite” video featuring David Richt, Colt Ford and David’s dad Mark joining in on some of the choreographed moves. I’ve heard from several readers who wanted to find the video online. It’s on YouTube now, and you can check it out here.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg