Transformation of offensive line keyed Kirby Smart’s turnaround at Georgia

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Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman (c) and his players pose for a picture in Pittman's pool as they hammed it up at his annual preseason backyard barbecue. Pittman and coach Kirby Smart have transformed the Bulldogs' roster with both the size and number of linemen coming to campus.

ATHENS — It was funny to check my Twitter feed on Thursday and see the photo of Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman cutting up with his charges at his annual late-summer cookout and pool party. I laughed not just because it was a joyful pic, but because it was a visual manifestation of what I was just telling my DawgNation colleague Mike Griffith the other day.

As you may know, Griffith is joining me in covering the Bulldogs this season after he’d chronicled Tennessee the previous two seasons and Michigan State before that. So, coming in new to this beat, Griffith naturally has been asking me a lot of questions about Georgia and this 2018 team in particular.

What led to our recent discussion about the O-line was this question: “What would you say is the biggest difference in Georgia now than when Kirby Smart first showed up.”

And O-line absolutely is the biggest difference, in my opinion.

I mean, this is not a revelation or something. To his credit, it was a stated goal of Smart’s not long after he arrived at UGA. Upon examining his team up close in the first couple of spring practices in 2016, Smart flat out called it. He said the Bulldogs have to get bigger on the lines of scrimmage, the offensive line in particular.

Smart basically issued an all-points bulletin that day, saying he was looking for guys 6-foot-5 and taller and that shorter linemen need not apply.

The transformation since then has been incredible to behold. It’s not just that the Bulldogs went out and did what Smart wanted on the recruiting front. It’s that everybody else in the SEC and the whole of FBS wants those big, tall linemen. Yet Georgia continues to win them over and sign them.

If you look closely at that pool pic posted by Pittman on Thursday, you’ll count 18 offensive linemen. In so far as I could tell, only Trey Hill was absent. A few of them are walkons, yes, but mostly they’re all recruited linemen playing on fully-funded grants-in-aids. Most of them had a lot of stars next to their recruiting profile, too.

And, yes, they’re some big boys therein. Here’s some figures to consider to that end:

  • In 2015, the season before Smart arrived, Georgia’s starting offensive line was one of the smallest in the SEC, averaging 6-4, 280.2 pounds.
  • The 2016 class was largely in the books by then, but Smart and Pittman did what they could to address the size issue. Bringing in graduate transfer Tyler Catalina, the average size of the starting group rose to 6-4.5, 304 in 2016.
  • It was the Class of 2017 where one began to see a real difference. Six linemen came in averaging 6-5, 337 pounds. The Bulldogs played at 6-4.5 and 317 this last season. It was a pretty good season.

Depending on how it shakes out this year, Georgia’s average size is up markedly again. Based on the way spring practice ended, with sophomore Andrew Thomas moving over to left tackle and Isaiah Wilson moving in at right tackle, the Bulldogs will average 6-5¼, 324.6 pounds. That’s assuming 310-pound senior guard Kendall Baker doesn’t get replaced by 330-pounders Solomon Kindley, Trey Hill or Jamaree Salyer and senior center 6-2, 308-pound center Lamont Gaillard doesn’t get beat out by 6-4, 315-pound freshman Warren Ericson.

They probably won’t, and size isn’t all that matters anyway. Just ask the New England Patriots, which just drafted Georgia’s 2017 first-team All-SEC tackle Isaiah Wynn in the first round at 6-2, 302. Smart actually spent some time this past spring downplaying the importance of size on the line this past spring, saying. “it doesn’t excite me.”

What does excite Smart, though, is competition. That’s where this year’s group stands to really set itself apart.

Back to that large overall number of large men, there are 14 of them on scholarship and most of them were 4-star-rated or better as recruits. Most of them are young. All of them want to start for the University of Georgia right now. Whomever ends up coming out on top stands to be doggone good football player.

And this is where Pittman is really special as a position coach. As that backyard pic illustrates, he somehow manages to keep his troops happy among all the grind and competition. That’s been the case everywhere he’s been as an assembly line of his past offensive line successes at other schools will attest.

If the Bulldogs end up winning another SEC championship this season, these big dudes on the offensive front will be a big reason why.

There are flaws on Georgia’s roster elsewhere now. Smart himself has bemoaned the lack of depth on the defensive line. Recent successes notwithstanding, the Bulldogs have suffered some past recruiting losses on that front. One can make a pretty good argument on which side of the line of scrimmage is more important to winning games and I might go with the defensive side on that one. But if Georgia’s D-line can stay healthy, I feel like it should be able to hold its own this year, at least in the regular season.

There will be a lot of attention on the linebacker corps and secondary when preseason camp gets underway next week, and rightly so. And there’s a rather notable changing of the guard taking place in the Bulldogs’ backfield. But I suspect Georgia will manage somehow with the running backs they have.

For me, though, unquestionably the strength of Georgia’s 2018 team is Pittman’s men in the trenches. Or, in this week’s case, in the pool.

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