Tight ends embrace block-first role in Bulldogs’ offense

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Charlie Woerner made his football reputation as a swift-footed wide receiver and free safety at Rabun County High School who might even occasionally take some snaps at running back.

That all changed when he got to Georgia. The Bulldogs immediately identified the fast-growing Woerner as a tight end, and he quickly found himself in foreign territory. Suddenly he was lining up in a three-point stance next to offensive tackles and being asked to block outside linebackers and defensive ends with NFL aspirations.

“It was tough,” said Woerner, a junior who shares first-team reps with fellow junior Isaac Nauta. “I remember my first week of practice at tight end how sore my hips were from actually getting into a stance. So that was my first learning curve there. But it was actually a lot of fun to learn something new. It was really tough, though, a whole different skill set compared to what I did in high school. It was hard but fun.”

Pass protection has proven to be a never-ending learning experience for Woerner and all of Georgia’s tight ends. Say what you may about it but, the fact is, under Georgia coach Kirby Smart, pass protection – and blocking in general – is the biggest part of the tight ends’ job.

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Yes, they’re still pass receivers, and occasionally they get a few balls thrown their way. But their primary purpose is to provide safe passage for others, whether it be running or throwing the football.

That was an issue this past Saturday when the Bulldogs went to LSU. It wasn’t the main reason they lost, but protecting the quarterback and providing running lanes for Georgia’s running backs was an issue at times in the 36-16 loss.

Quarterback Jake Fromm was sacked three times and pressured several other times on the way to one of his poorest outings of his career as a passer. Meanwhile, Georgia’s vaunted running game, while effective in increments, disappeared at inopportune times.

» Mark Bradley: Is Georgia really that good?

For that, Woerner and the tight ends accept some of the blame. But he also offered a tip of the cap to LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda for showing them some things they hadn’t seen before.

In fact, Woerner said, the Bulldogs have seen a lot of unusual things from defenses this season.

“People are just bringing a lot of weird pressures and blitzes against us,” Woerner said, including LSU in that group. “… It’s just weird stuff.”

Both LSU coach Ed Orgeron and Georgia coach Kirby Smart mentioned in-game adjustments that the Tigers made that stymied the Bulldogs’ offense for a good while in the middle of Saturday’s game. After studying video from the game, Smart thought that might’ve been somewhat overstated.

“They didn’t change a whole lot,” he said Monday night after the Bulldogs’ practice. “They went to a four-down front a couple times, instead of a three-down. But they mixed that back and forth the whole game. They did a better job on the perimeter of run supporting. And they had a lead.”

Whatever the case, the Bulldogs would be well advised to brush up on their recognition and adjustments for “exotic” blitzes and defensive fronts in the coming days. Up next is Florida, and the Gators have placed their defense in the hands of former Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

Grantham once bragged of having more than 50 different blitz options in his defensive package. Florida has had some success with that high-risk formula this season. The Gators are second in the SEC with an average of 3.00 sacks per game, second in the league in turnover margin at plus-9 and they lead the conference in takeaways at 18 (11 fumbles, 8 interceptions).

Of course, the Bulldogs sported similar numbers was Grantham was their defensive coordinator. But that was also during a period when Georgia fans coined the phrase “third-and-Grantham” because allowed so many devastating conversions. Florida is showing that tendency this season as well, allowing opponents a 34.9 percent conversion, which is ninth among conference team.

The key, Woerner said, is to recognize what the defense is doing and react accordingly.

“It’s really just a matter of figuring how to pick it all up, because we’re plenty talented and strong enough to stop defenses,” Woerner said. “It’s just figuring out how to pick up the blitzes and everything correctly.”

And how do they go about doing that?

“Practice,” Woerner said. “That’s what we do here at Georgia. We practice hard four days out of the week. We get after it and get ready to play.”

At least the Bulldogs have an extra week to work on it.

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