ATHENS – It was a Friday night during Georgia’s spring practice, you may remember, that head coach Kirby Smart and offensive line coach Sam Pittman flew up to Massachusetts to hang out with Tyler Catalina. Now, why do you suppose they did that?
“Hi Tyler. Good to see you. Impressive buck on your mantle there. Hey, we just flew all the way up here in the middle of our first spring practice so we could let you know we’re REALLY excited about you being our second-string tackle. Maybe third string. Now, let’s have some clam chowder!”
So it’s a good bet that’s not what was said. Yes, Catalina has only played at Rhode Island, which many people were unaware even had a football program. And is not, in fact, an island. So whether Catalina can adjust to the SEC remains an open question. Jake Ganus adjusted well, but UAB to the SEC isn’t as steep a jump.
But here’s the thing: Catalina is not only a senior graduate transfer. He’s 23 years old. He’s 6-foot-6 and 325 pounds. And Georgia was one of six SEC schools and among more than 25 major programs to offer Catalina a spot.
Some may call it a stretch to rank him among the most important half-dozen Georgia players this season. But here’s the requisite reminder: This is not a ranking of the team’s best players. It’s an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2016 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
And now, in case you didn’t realize it via the introduction to this post, or the picture, …
6. TYLER CATALINA
WHY HE’S VITAL: Because if he locks down a starting job and performs well, the rest of the line gets stabilized around him. Catalina can play left or right tackle, and it remains to be seen where he’ll end up. If it’s left tackle, that could let Isaiah Wynn play either guard spot or even right tackle, and Greg Pyke at right tackle or right guard. The only certain spot is Brandon Kublanow at center. If Catalina ends up at right tackle, Pyke could shift inside to right guard, with Wynn at left tackle, and Dyshon Sims at left guard. The point being, if Catalina can nail one of them down, it makes everything a lot easier. And if he makes the transition to major college football as well as, say, Ganus, then Georgia’s offensive line has a much better chance to be a strength rather than a weakness.
QUOTABLE: “Obviously it’s a lot of pressure. It’s not just going from FCS to Division I-A, it’s going to the SEC. I get that. But I’m extremely excited about it. I know I can do it. I know I’m going to perform at a high level. I’ve just got to get in there, learn the playbook and earn my stripes from Day One.” – Tyler Catalina, to my colleague Chip Towers, in the earlier Next Generation series story.
BEST CASE: Catalina has the same impact as Ganus, starting from game one and keeping the spot throughout the season. Maybe he isn’t named the MVP of his unit, as Ganus was last year, but if he proves dependable at either tackle spot, then it should have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the line, and the offense as a whole.
WORST CASE: Catalina proves unready for the next level. He doesn’t earn a starting spot, or doesn’t keep it, or the team has no choice to put him out there and he generally proves out of his league, literally, causing Georgia’s offensive line to undergo numerous lineup changes, hurting chemistry and leading to another mediocre season for the group.
FINAL WORD: Smart, Pittman and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney have made the calculation that Catalina can make the jump. But they may not have to wait until North Carolina to test him: Right away in August, they’ll throw Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy and the other chiseled pass-rushers at Catalina, and see what happens.