By Ryan Black
For the AJC
ATHENS — Mark Beard’s most difficult assignment against Auburn on Saturday had nothing to do with blocking oncoming defenders.
The Georgia left tackle’s biggest issue didn’t even occur in the game itself: He had to figure out how to distribute tickets prior to kickoff. With his cousin, LaDarius Owens, playing for the Tigers, the pair had to figure out which family member would use what ticket. They wound up splitting their allotment evenly.
Beard made it a memorable experience for his family, as the Alabama native made the first start of his Georgia career against his favorite team from childhood.
“You can never be perfect,” he said after Monday’s practice. “I messed up a couple of times, but I think I played a pretty good game.”
Beard and Owens shared a brief conversation on the field following Georgia’s 38-0 victory. Owens promised to call Beard later that night to discuss the outcome in more detail. The call never came.
“I think he was just disappointed,” Beard said.
His family’s members weren’t displeased, though, and they let Beard know it after the game. Given their split allegiance between the Bulldogs and the Tigers, Beard said his family struck the right note.
“All of them just told me they’re a Mark Beard fan and that’s all I needed to hear,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”
Offensive line coach Will Friend felt Beard’s play was beyond “good” Saturday. Beard said his performance earned a spot on the team’s weekly “Victor’s Club,” an honor bestowed on players who receive a grade over 80 on coaches’ film review of the game.
But Beard doesn’t go easy on himself.
After saying last week he would give himself a “C” for the season despite appearing in every game, last Saturday’s performance barely improved that mark.
“It’s probably at a C-plus now,” he said. “I’m a tough grader.”
While Beard might be reticent to give himself credit, others weren’t as restrained. Freshman right tackle John Theus was impressed with his teammate’s initial start.
“Mark did really well,” Theus said. “He’s really worked hard to get himself into that position. He took advantage of the opportunity he had.”
Even before last Saturday, Beard had caught the eye of coach Mark Richt. Richt acknowledged injuries to other offensive lineman, right guard Chris Burnette specifically, played a part in Beard’s extensive action. But Richt said the junior college transfer has earned playing time.
“I’m glad he’s getting opportunities to play and the more he plays, the more he’ll get comfortable,” Richt said. “He’s a very good athlete, he’s strong. He’s everything we thought he was athletically. It’s just a matter of learning and getting comfortable.”
Saturday’s game against Georgia Southern could provide Beard’s first start at Sanford Stadium. While kickoff is still four days away, he has already let himself imagine what it would it feel like to run through the tunnel and hear his name announced as a starter.
“That’d be a great moment,” he said. “I think that’s something everybody looks forward to, seeing their name on that starting list and seeing their picture up there on the Sanford Stadium scoreboard. That’ll feel good.”
Theus no longer feels like first-year player
Ten games into the season, Theus has been told one excuse is no longer valid: using his freshman designation as a cover for his mistakes.
“I’m not a freshman anymore,” he said. “Coach Friend started telling me that a few weeks ago. … I feel more and more comfortable within the offense and with the calls. I sure feel more comfortable than I did the first day of camp, that’s for dang sure.”
Just not comfortable enough to correct any of his more experienced teammates on the offensive line — yet. More often than not, Theus said, it’s the other way around.
“If someone makes a call next to me, I’m very confident that’s the right call,” he said. “If there is something I’m not sure about, I (usually) have enough time to say, ‘Hey, I thought it was this.’ And then most of the time, it’s me that’s wrong, and then they’ll explain it to me.”
Theus said his fellow linemen challenged each other last week, wanting to atone for their performance against Ole Miss, when they allowed the Rebels to tally five sacks in the first half. The unit responded last Saturday, as Auburn didn’t notch a sack while Georgia rolled up 38 points and 497 yards of total offense.
“We knew as an offensive line we had to answer the bell,” Theus said. “It was our challenge as a line to do that, without a doubt. I think we answered it.”
Taking stock of the line’s overall play this season was a much tougher task for Theus. He didn’t end up rendering his take, but felt it was too soon to be handing out grades, anyway.
“The season’s not over yet. We’ve still got some more weeks left,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep going with that goal of improvement. As far as a grade, I’m not sure, but I think we’ve gotten better each week. That’s one of the things we really focus on.”
Bulldogs switch things up for practice, go full pads
Georgia practiced in full pads Monday, a change of pace from its normal routine.
“I heard rumors throughout the day from the guys that we might be doing that, just because of teams like (Georgia) Tech that run this kind of offense,” Theus said. “So I was hoping it wasn’t true, but it was true.”
Theus followed it up by saying he felt it was a “better Monday practice than we normally have.”
Richt echoed Theus’ sentiment, saying players “worked hard” and were “zeroed in on the task at hand.” Given the triple-option offense Georgia Southern runs, Richt said it was imperative his team prepare accordingly for a scheme it doesn’t face often. He believed Monday’s practice got the the Bulldogs heading in the right direction.
“Our focus this week will be completely on Georgia Southern, not on any other teams and not on the game in Atlanta,” Richt told UGA Sports Communications. “We know that we have a challenge on our hands against Georgia Southern, especially from a defensive standpoint. It is critical that we have a great week of scout-team work. We have to really dial in on our assignments and our fundamentals.”
Burnette and outside linebacker Chase Vasser both sat out the full-pads practice Monday with left shoulder injuries. Beard said Burnette has stayed in high spirits despite the injury he suffered against Ole Miss two weeks ago. “Every time I see Chris, he’s in a good mood,” Beard said.