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Rising sophomore Ben Cleveland (center, sunglasses) could be Georgia's best guard in 2018.

Why guard is most important position on Georgia’s offensive line

Cy Brown

Welcome to Good Day, UGA, your one-stop shop for Georgia football news and takes. Check us out every weekday morning for everything you need to know about Georgia football, recruiting, basketball and more.

Next man up: Guard

Ahead of spring practice in 2017, Georgia coach Kirby Smart pledged that he would play “musical chairs” by experimenting with different players in different positions. Smart stayed true to his word, and offensive line coach Sam Pittman oversaw a competition for spots along the line that lasted from spring practice to fall camp an into the 2017 season. The move paid off, as the Bulldogs line — which proved to be its best in years — improved as the season wore on.

Considering Smart’s philosophy of constant competition for spots and the sheer of amount of outstanding young players along the offensive line, there’s a good chance we’ll see more experimentation and musical chairs this spring. And no competition will be more important to the line than the one for the starting guard jobs.

When I say guard is the most important position, I don’t mean the guard’s role is more important than a tackle’s or center’s. I mean that the position battle at guard is the one that will have the greatest implications for the rest of the line.

As I said, Georgia has plenty of young, talented lineman, a lot of whom appear destined for careers at guard. If some of these freshman can assert themselves and claim a spot in the starting lineup, or even the two-deep, it could create an opening for an older player or two to move inside to center or outside to tackle in an effort to further strengthen those positions. With so many young offensive linemen, there’s even an outside shot that someone could switch to the other side of the ball and add depth to the defensive line. It’s all about mixing and matching to maximize your talent across the roster, and guard will be the key to maximizing the offensive line.

So I’ll continue my series of position previews with a look at the guards. Because of the musical chairs still to come, I’m not differentiating guards by which side of the line I think they’ll play on. Instead, I’m ranking them by the most likely to earn a starting job, regardless of which side they line up. Let’s get into it.

1. Ben Cleveland — Cleveland, a redshirt sophomore, began the 2017 season on the outside of the starting lineup and finished it as the best guard on the roster. He’s also the most versatile. The 6-foot-6 Cleveland has the build of a tackle, and most folks figured that’s where he would play in college. But the need at guard was too great, so Cleveland stuck there, eventually earning the starting right guard gig in November. Pittman said he plans to keep Cleveland at guard “if we can.” So if the candidates at right tackle aren’t up to snuff — or if some of the freshmen guards we’ll discuss momentarily come in as ready-made starters — Cleveland could shift back to tackle.

2. Kendall Baker — Baker started 14 of 15 games last season as a junior at left guard. He’ll enter the spring as the favorite to start on the left once again, but it’s far from a guarantee. He’ll need to beat any freshman challenging him handily, because given the choice between two players of equal skill, Smart, like most coaches, will choose the young one. But I tend to think Baker’s work ethic and experience will be enough for him to earn him one of two starting jobs when the season begins.

3a. Jamaree Salyer — Call it the Andrew Thomas Effect. Thomas, who started at right tackle last season as a  freshman, and Salyer both attended high school at Pace Academy. Pace has earned a reputation as a program that produces mature, high work-ethic players, especially linemen. If Salyer is built from Thomas’s mold, you have to imagine he’ll earn a starting job early in his career. “If you like Andrew, you are going to love Jamaree,” Pace Academy coach Chris Slade said.

3b. Trey Hill — Hill, the other 5-star guard from the Class of 2018, also stands a strong chance to earn minutes this season, and may even have a leg up on Salyer considering Hill enrolled early. A spring of practice and a summer of workouts can do wonders for a young player as he adjusts to college, especially a lineman. And like Salyer, Hill comes to Athens with a connection to one of the team’s outstanding sophomores. Hill attended Houston County High, where he blocked for Georgia quarterback  Jake Fromm. That familiarity with Fromm and his cadence could help him catch on to the pace of the game quicker than most freshmen.

5. Solomon Kindley — Kindley started seven games last season, but lost his starting spot after the loss to Auburn. In that game, Kindley, along with the rest of the line, was abused by the Tigers defense. Cleveland came in, played better than most expected and kept the job. Considering Cleveland improved significantly over the five games he started, it stands to reason Kindley will have to make tremendous strides to get back in the hunt for the starting job with the influx of young talent incoming.

Other candidates: Netori Johnson, Pat Allen, Dyshon Sims, Chris Barnes

Position battles Right tackle | Inside linebacker

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The latest on the men’s hoops coaching search

Most Georgia fans thought AD Greg McGarity had found his man for Georgia men’s coaching gig after former Ohio State coach Thad Matta visited Athens Monday, left with an offer, then came back Tuesday with his wife. But on Wednesday, Matta said he declined Georgia’s offer, spurning a reported five-year contract worth $3.2 million a year, $1.2 million more than Mark Fox earned annually.

So the search continues and we move down the list of potential candidates. If McGarity wants to make a high-profile move, which the advances on Matta indicate he does, the most logical next choice is former Indiana coach Tom Crean. Earl Grant of College of Charleston is another name that has surfaced.

But the most interesting new name to the list: Tubby Smith. Smith coached at Georgia for two seasons from 1995-97 before heading to Kentucky, where he immediately won a national title. Smith’s latest gig was Memphis, a job he was inexplicably fired from Wednesday after leading the Tigers to a 40-26 record over two seasons. It would be a controversial choice to be sure, but it would make one heck of a good story. Who wouldn’t want to watch Smith try to finally take Georgia to the heights he was on the verge of taking it to in his first stint as coach?

His name is Jonas Hayes

Regardless of who is hired as coach, one thing is becoming clear: He should retain assistant Jonas Hayes. Reading interviews with signees and former commitments in the wake of Fox’s firing, it’s become clear that Hayes, who played at UGA from 2001-04, was the catalyst behind the program’s would-be recruiting success over the last few months.

If the new coach wants to land the two Georgia-born blue-chippers who de-committed after Fox was fired and recruit at a high level in-state in perpetuity, he needs to retain Hayes.

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Sounds like a good plan to me.

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