Georgia could give young offensive linemen a shot right away

Andrew Thomas-Georgia football
Andrew Thomas has been impressing in preseason camp thus far.

ATHENS – It was only the eighth day of practice, but it looked like it may have been the future of Georgia’s offensive line: freshman Andrew Thomas with the first team. Ditto for redshirt freshmen Solomon Kindley and Ben Cleveland. And freshman like Isaiah Wilson, Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer shuffling in for reps at various positions.

“There’s a lot of guys moving around,” said Dyshon Sims, the versatile senior who’s been working with all those heralded youngsters – but also trying to compete with them.

Offensive line is the new quarterback, as far as the Bulldogs go this preseason. It’s the spot where the pecking order will be closely watched and analyzed. And the O-line could be handled the same way it was last year: The younger guy with the most long-term potential may win a job, even if he’s not quite the best option right away.

Three starting spots were vacated after last season. Two are basically set: Lamont Gaillard and Isaiah Wynn at left tackle. The other three spots are a source of great interest.

Head coach Kirby Smart, when asked about the upcoming decisions, acknowledged it could be “very similar to Jacob and Greyson last year.” Greyson Lambrt, the fifth-year senior, started the opener but gave way to freshman Jacob Eason the second week.

So this year with the offensive line, you could see a scenario where one of the rookies either starts or plays early over a veteran, with the thinking that experience will make them better.

“It’s a critical decision,” Smart said. “We’ve always said we want to play the guys who give us the best opportunity to win. Well in game one that may not be the same as game 2,3, 4, 5. So when we make those decisions we make them based on own the road, who’s going to be the best guy down the road. That doesn’t mean that that guy might start. …

“Very similar to Jacob and Greyson last year. We’re trying to decide who’s going to be the best guy down the road. It doesn’t mean that guy’s going to start right away. It just means that guy’s going to be ready to play and going to be developed.”

Georgia redshirt freshman Ben Cleveland. (JEFF SENTELL)

Cleveland, the much-hyped recruit last year, was working first-team at right tackle on Tuesday, with Thomas and Kindley at the guards. The latter wasn’t a surprise – Kindley was first-team coming out of spring – while the Cleveland and Thomas spots were largely the result of Wynn’s absence: He is out with illness right now, so the team is experimenting.

But the fact Thomas was at left guard, after coming in as a highly-regarded tackle prospect, is very intriguing. That could be about this season, but also the future, as he could just slide one spot over to replace Wynn.

“He’s a future left tackle. That’s what we think he is,” Smart said of Thomas. “But we have to play our best players.”

Smart also said that Thomas was “catching up quick,” and has the athletic ability to play multiple positions.

Cleveland, meanwhile, is in the mix at right tackle along with Wilson, the five-star recruit. Cleveland’s seeming ascension would seem like manna from heaven for the fans who constantly ask about him. But Smart cautioned that it could be temporary.

“It says that he’s the right tackle today as of Practice 8. That’s all it says,” Smart said. “He’s got to continue to get better. We expect more from him. We’re searching for a right tackle.”

That could still end up being Sims, who was only at left tackle on Tuesday because of Sims’ absence.

“Dyshon was probably playing better than (Cleveland). But Ben has a lot of potential,” Smart said. “He has a lot of great size. So does Isaiah Wilson. But neither one are playing up to the standards of what we expect right now. So we’ve got to keep growing.”

Georgia’s first scrimmage will be Saturday. The situation could have a bit more clarity after that. Then it should settle a week later after the second scrimmage. Right now it appears the staff wants to find not only a starting five, but a few top backups who will rotate in. It will be about playing the best guys in 2017 – while also getting ready for 2018.

“I like the talent level of all those young kids,” offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “I don’t believe there’s a young kid there where we go, Oh my goodness what were we thinking? These are kids that can move, can bend, can twist, and have the stature that we’re looking for. How quick can they learn the technical side and be as quick as we need them to be remains to be seen. But as we sit here after one week I’m very tickled with all those kids and I think they’ll all be competing to be in the depth chart, and being on that bus.”

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