Georgia spring preview: Offensive line

This is the fifth installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia’s spring football practice, the start of which is uncertain because of the coronavirus outbreak. Today: Offensive line | Yesterday: Defensive backsTomorrow: Tight ends

OFFENSIVE LINE
Who's gone: LT Andrew Thomas, LG Solomon Kindley, RG Cade Mays, RT Isaiah Wilson, T D'Marcus Hayes
Who's back: C Trey Hill, G Ben Cleveland, G/T Jamaree Salyer, G Justin Shaffer, G/C Warren Ericson, T Owen Condon, T Warren McClendon, C Clay Webb, T Xavier Truss
Who's new: None for the spring
Projected starters: Truss, Shaffer, Hill, Cleveland, Salyer

ATHENS -- To look at a list of Georgia's offensive linemen available for the coming season, one might be left to wonder, what's the big deal?

Including Netori Johnson – who could play either offensive or defensive line in 2020 – Georgia has 16 scholarship players available on the offensive line. Many of them carried 5-star ratings when they signed, or a skosh below that. All of them are exceptionally large and possess SEC-level physical qualifications.

But a half-dozen of that number won’t yet be on campus when the Bulldogs gather to start spring drills, which has been delayed because of the coronavirus outbreak. Another one-third of the remainder has never taken a snap in a college game. Only one can lay an undisputed claim to the label of returning starter.

These are some of the reasons coach Kirby Smart expressed concern about Georgia’s offensive line in February. The Bulldogs have fielded inexperienced offensive lines in years past, but they will be hard-pressed to find a greener group than this one.

“These guys are going to have to develop, lift, work,” Smart said. “What’s going to be unique for us is a lot of these guys are going to be living across the two-deep just because our numbers are really down. These guys are going to have an opportunity to come in and compete and start. They also will be going against guys that are going to need to get better and grow.”

The mass exodus on Georgia’s offensive line includes the losses of left tackle Andrew Thomas, right tackle Isaiah Wilson and left guard Solomon Kindley to the NFL draft, each with a season of college eligibility remaining. It includes the bizarre transfer of part-time starter Cade Mays – easily the team’s most versatile offensive lineman – to Tennessee.

With them went 115 starts and 133 games played.

This was not totally unexpected. Thomas and Wilson project as first-round picks. The Bulldogs have been recruiting the past couple of years with an eye on 2020 being a year of transition on the offensive front.

The coaching staff has done an exceptional job in that regard, by all accounts. The only blemish on that work is that none of the six offensive linemen Georgia signed in its No. 1-ranked 2020 recruiting class was able to enroll early. That means the group will be inordinately thin as the Bulldogs embark on 14 practice dates plus the G-Day game over the next month or so.

Fortunately for Georgia, it was able to land former Ole Miss coach Matt Luke to succeed line coach Sam Pittman just a week after Pittman accepted the head coaching job at Arkansas in December. Luke was able not only to step in during the recruiting and evaluation process, but also to coach the current players through bowl practices and the Sugar Bowl and develop an informed opinion about the group he inherited.

“We anticipated this being a large offensive line class,” Smart said. “I’ve been very pleased with the transition from coach Pittman to coach Luke, and (Luke) being able to recruit these kids and bring them to our place. … Getting (Luke) on staff fast was probably one of the critical roles of that transition. It wasn’t a long process where (recruits) had to sit in the unknown.”

Depth and versatility will have to be developed, but Luke has a lot of options when it comes to a top five. Junior center Trey Hill is the only full-fledged returning starter, starting every game last season. But he played in every game and started four at guard as a freshman in 2018.

Likewise, junior Jamaree Salyer started in Wilson’s spot at right tackle in the bowl game and one other time, but he actually has more game experience playing guard. Senior Ben Cleveland, who missed the bowl game because of an academic suspension, started six games last season and 15 in his career at right guard, but can also play right tackle.

Redshirt freshman Warren Ericson, who started the bowl game at right guard, came to Georgia touted as a center and is a strong option there, as is Clay Webb. The Bulldogs are fortunate to have Justin Shaffer back after he missed the final eight games last season after a neck injury. He started two games at left guard while Kindley was sidelined last season, but also is a candidate at tackle.

And so on.

The obvious focus of spring is going to be at left tackle. Georgia lost a player in Thomas who might be the first lineman off the board in April’s draft. The Bulldogs’ offensive line got a lot of criticism last year for not being as good as advertised, but it should be noted that the Bulldogs’ quarterbacks attempted the third-fewest pressured passes in Power 5 football, according to Pro Football Focus.

Redshirt freshmen Xavier Truss (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) and Warren McClendon (6-4, 320) and sophomore Owen Condon (6-7, 310) were recruited to compete for Thomas’ spot when he left. They’ll be in spring camp to do just that. Broderick Jones, Tate Ratledge, Devin Willock, Sedrick Van Pran, Chad Lindberg and Austin Blaske, Georgia’s freshman signees, will not. They’ll join the fray this summer.

Regardless, whoever emerges will be a first-time starter. The Bulldogs are prepared for that.

“They wanted to compete and play at a high level,” Smart said.

And so they will.

THE SERIES

Monday: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Wednesday: Linebackers
Thursday: Defensive backs
Today: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Sunday: Quarterbacks
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs