ATHENS – The reputation of Ben Cleveland was burnished, at least in the mind of Isaiah Wynn, when the two were bench-pressing together early last year, soon after Cleveland had arrived on campus.
Wynn, a fellow offensive lineman and no slouch himself when it comes to strength, tells the story:
“We were paired up in bench. I hit my peak, and he kept going. I looked at (strength) coach Scott) Sinclair, and I was like, ‘Oh OK, that’s Ben.’ ”
Big Ben, as he was known even before arriving at Georgia, was bench-pressing in the 400s, as Wynn remembers. But it took awhile for the highly touted Cleveland to crack the starting lineup. When he did, it paid off, in the latest such correct button pushed by Georgia coaches.
Considered the weak link on Georgia’s team entering the season – and with justification – the offensive line this week was named among seven national semifinalists for the Joe Moore award, bestowed to the nation’s top offensive line.
It’s OK if you’ve never heard of the Joe Moore award. It’s only three years old, and is named for the longtime offensive line coach at Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. The first-ever winner of the award was Alabama two years ago, then Iowa last year.
It may be a stretch to say Georgia’s line is among the best in the country: While UGA ranks 10th nationally in rushing offense, it helps to have Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift. The Bulldogs have yielded 14 sacks, which is pretty good and tied for 19th-least nationally, but they gave up four sacks to Auburn in the team’s lone loss this season.
But it’s not a stretch to say the unit has turned things around. Georgia has converted on all but one of its red-zone trips, which reflects offensive line play, as does third-down conversion percentage, where UGA is hitting at 48 percent, which is second in the SEC.
“It’s amazing, those guys they get bashed all the time,” Michel said. “Last year everybody was like, ‘They’re not good,’ but they almost had two 1,000-yard rushers last year. But it’s amazing that they finally get some good (publicity).”
Much is made of the Year 2 effect for coach Kirby Smart. The same may have happened for offensive line coach Sam Pittman, who had to replace three senior starters off last year’s unit and has still improved it.
There has only been slight tinkering, with three starters at their spot for every game: Wynn at left tackle, Lamont Gaillard at center and freshman Andrew Thomas at right tackle. Kendall Baker was put at left guard for Week 2 at Notre Dame and has stayed there. Solomon Kindley started seven games at right guard, in and out because of an ankle injury, but then alternated with Cleveland last weekend against Kentucky.
That was a performance-based decision. And it worked out, as both played well.
“They both deserve to play,” Smart said of Cleveland and Kindley. “There’s not a lot of drop off when you go from one to the other, so that’s important. I think those two guys probably get a little more tired than the other guys. So they compliment each other by keeping each other fresh.”
But Smart also issued a cautionary note about the O-line improvement between the Auburn and Kentucky games.
“I think it has a lot to do with who you’re playing,” Smart said. “Would we have played better against Auburn if they both played? I don’t know that. We watch them both. We watch them really hard in the box and say, ‘Who’s playing better?’ If they’re both playing good and getting movement, they both play.”
So whether Cleveland, Kindley and the O-line can keep this up may well determine whether Georgia wins an SEC championship.
But at minimum the group has played well enough to be a part of getting the Bulldogs in this position.
“We’re always with them, we always understand what they’re going through,” Michel said. “You can’t expect perfect holes, that’s not the life we live in. The guys across the ball they’re on scholarship, too. Those guys, they give it their all at the end of the day, so we know that, we respect them.”