Anatomy of a turnaround: Why Georgia offensive line is better

Georgia-Kendall Baker-offensive line-Bulldogs
Kendall Baker (65) helps open up a huge hole for Nick Chubb against Florida.

ATHENS – Solomon Kindley spent a bit of time this week regaling the media with tales of being the quarterback on his elementary flag-football team and what it’s like to try to squeeze his 330-pound frame into cars.

“Sometimes I’ll end up having my knee all the way to the dashboard,” Kindley said, grinning. “And then sometimes I’ll be shopping and be like, ‘Oh, I like this sweater, this pair of jeans – oh, I can’t fit it, way too small.’ ”

The tone was light – and so much different from the subject matter Georgia offensive linemen were dealing with this time last year. Or even this preseason. What was the weak link on the 2016 team, and the biggest question about the 2017 team, has become …

Well, not a strength. Let’s not go that far yet. Let’s wait and see how it does against Auburn and, presumably, Alabama. But through eight games, it’s clear things have turned around.

The two stats that most often are related to offensive line performance are sacks allowed and rushing yards. And in each area, Georgia has improved.

  • An improvement of nearly 100 rushing yards per game from last season: 284 yards per game this season, in contrast to 191.23 last year. And averaging 6.01 yards per running attempt this season, versus 4.66 last season. Both are astounding improvements.
  • Only 8 sacks allowed this year, tied for the second-least in the SEC. (Ole Miss is first.) That’s on pace to be well under last season’s total of 24 sacks given up, which was tied for sixth in the conference.

Beyond that, it’s just the eye test. The unit looks better. It’s getting a better push against the defensive line. It’s opening bigger holes, such as the gaping ones that Sony Michel ran through against Florida.

What happened? A few explanations:

Isaiah Wynn at left tackle

This fact needs more attention. Isaiah Wynn is a senior and a three-year starter, and Georgia is undefeated with him as its left tackle. He moved there the final five games of his sophomore season, played there in last season’s bowl game, and has been there every game this year. The record: 14-0 with Wynn at tackle, and 13-8 with Wynn at guard.

Wynn isn’t huge (6-foot-1 and 300 pounds), but his skill and athleticism are an advantage in what is increasingly a game played in space. It might not be the position he plays in the NFL, but it’s clear by now that’s where he works best at Georgia.

“I think going back [to left tackle] exclusively, he’s done a tremendous job,” coach Kirby Smart said. “He plays with really good toughness. He plays with really good balance and body control to stay in front of people. I think he’s been a tremendous asset.”

Play calling and play design

Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney spent some offseason time studying the Atlanta Falcons offense, which in its Super Bowl run last season used some zone blocking. Georgia did some zone blocking last year but was more man-to-man and gap-oriented. (The latter works best if a team’s O-linemen are bigger and better than the defense, which wasn’t the case for Georgia last season.)

This year for Georgia there have been some creative formations and blocking schemes, such as on Saturday against Florida, when reserves Dyshon Sims and Aulden Bynum put on tight end jerseys and gave Georgia a seven-man line.

Smart, asked if Georgia is doing more zone blocking this year, said there’s hasn’t been much change.

“We ran a lot of zone plays last year. We have run a lot of zone plays this year, probably just less gap plays is the biggest difference,” Smart said, then added, “Having some situations where we get a little more favorable boxes is what we are always trying to do.”

Translated: more running plays out of spread and pass-oriented formations. That was an issue with the play calling last season. Georgia tended to pass out of pass formation and run out of run formations. It was predictable. Not so much this year.

It also helps to have quarterback Jake Fromm hitting more deep balls, which forces defenses to keep at least a safety back.

Sam Pittman has pushed the right buttons this season, including placing Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. (Nate Gettleman/DawgNation)

Sam Pittman and Jim Chaney in Year 2

This was the first time since 2014 that Georgia returned its offensive coordinator (Jim Chaney) and offensive-line coach (Sam Pittman.) That appears to have paid off.

Personnel helps, too. Not only Wynn playing the right position, but junior Lamont Gaillard making a seamless adjustment from guard to center, junior Kendall Baker emerging at left guard after three years in obscurity, true freshman Andrew Thomas being as good as advertised at right tackle and Kindley being a good fit at right guard as a redshirt freshman.

It was Pittman and Chaney who put those pieces in place. And Kindley said the warm relationship between players and coaches is a benefit.

“Coach Pittman and Coach Chaney, they build a relationship with you. In our room, it’s not letting us down, it’s letting them down,” Kindley said. “So if we do bad or mess up on a block, we’ve got to go back to the sideline and say what happened to them. It’s like a disappointment to yourself if we let Coach Pittman or Coach Chaney down.”

So far, that hasn’t happened much this year.

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