Depth pays off for Georgia’s offensive line

ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs hadn’t made any changes to their offensive line all season until key contributors sat out against Tennessee on Saturday.

Starting left guard Xavier Truss (turf toe) missed the marquee matchup against the Vols, and sophomore Devin Willock got the first start of his career, replacing Truss. Sophomore backup right tackle Amarius Mims (MCL) missed the game as well.

“Anytime you hear ‘first start,’ it’s awesome,” offensive lineman Warren Ericson said. “I remember mine. I was really, really excited for him, and I think he went on and played well. Each person has a role (on this team). We’re always competing. We’re always fighting to go out there and play the best we can. So, I was proud of him and how he got his start.”

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Ericson also saw increased snaps with Truss’ absence.

“Honestly, it was amazing,” Ericson said. “Just the environment as a whole was so awesome. The fans really responded to the challenges that coach (Kirby Smart) and our program put out to them, and I think that really affected the game.

“Me getting in the game, I was really excited about that – anytime I can contribute. It was awesome, especially for me.”

Ericson started last season at right guard for Georgia but was transitioned into a backup this season.

“This year, I wanted to be the best leader I possibly can,” Ericson said. “Obviously not getting the same amount of reps like I was last year. But, for me, I want to prepare each day, like I can go out there and play 80 reps in any position, left guard, center or right guard.

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“That helps me kind of stay sharp, going in the film room extra. Learning what the defense is going to do. Then acting like, ‘If I’m in this situation, like what am I going to do?’ So, that always helps me stay sharp for whenever my time is and be ready to go.”

The offensive line has been one of the driving forces for Georgia this season. The front five has allowed only seven sacks through nine games, tied for first in the SEC and fourth in the nation.

According to Ericson, the Bulldogs had to gain comfort and confidence up front with a different group this year after Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer went to the NFL after last season.

“That takes a little bit of time when you have to fill gaps and move different people in,” Ericson said. “But, I think (our success comes from) just having a really good connection. Knowing your brother and then (giving) time and attention to playing and getting reps and reps and reps. That kind of helps out a lot in our development.”

Those practice reps, more than game snaps, are what propels the line to grow each week. It also places them in position to have guys step up in times of need, such as against Tennessee.

“You have to have good quality reps every time in order to be ready for the game,” Ericson said. “Then, it’s how we practice, too, doing everything full speed and physical. Getting really good looks from the scout team. That really helps us in the game, because now we’re like, ‘OK, now I know this person’s coming here. I know that he’s right behind me. He’s going to have my back.’”

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Now they are faced with a tough challenge having to travel to Mississippi State and maintain their composure in a rowdy environment Saturday night.

“It’s obviously gonna be a challenge, just because the new environment – night game with the cowboy cowbells and everything like that,” Ericson said. “But, we’ve grown each game. We trust each other. And then the connection part that we always talk about. I think we just get stronger and stronger with that each day. So, we’ve gotta go in, we gotta be mentally intense and we got to be ready to play.”

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