Kirby Smart speaks bluntly about the Georgia offensive line: ‘We have to play better up front’

Kirby Smart-Georgia football-offensive line
Georgia offensive lineman Broderick Jones (59) during the Bulldogs’ game against UAB in Athens, Ga., on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles)
Mackenzie Miles

ATHENS — Georgia went into Saturday’s game looking to be more explosive on offense. The Bulldogs found success there in the passing game, with Stetson Bennett earning co-SEC offensive player of the week honors as he threw for 5 touchdowns.

But the same could not be said for when Georgia ran the ball on Saturday. The longest rush of the day came from Bennett, as he scrambled for 20 yards. The second-longest came from back-up quarterback Carson Beck, as he had a 15-yard run.

Ericson got the start on Saturday, along with Jamaree Salyer at left tackle, Justin Shaffer at right guard, Sedrick Van Pran at center and Warren McClendon at right tackle.

Smart said multiple times during his Monday press conference that Georgia is still looking for its best five-man combination on the line. That explains in part why Georgia inserted redshirt freshman Broderick Jones into the game on the third and fifth series of the game.

The thought had been that playing Jones at tackle allows you to move Salyer — Georgia’s most talented offensive lineman — down to guard. Against UAB though, Georgia did not do that.

On the first drive Jones entered the game, he went in at left tackle and Salyer came out. The Bulldogs called three straight running plays with Beck under center, and the drive ended in a punt.

The next time Jones entered the game, with Georgia up 21-0, he slid in at right tackle for McClendon. Salyer stayed at left tackle, with Shaffer and Ericson manning their spots at guard. That drive lasted one play, as it resulted in a 61-yard touchdown pass to Arian Smith.

“As we improve and figure out who is the best five are, we are trying to figure out the best way to move people and obviously that takes mass and strength,” Smart said. “And also to be able to protect so we can throw the ball

Smart mentioned that Salyer will continue to rep on the interior of the offensive line for Georgia. As for Jones, with the game well in hand in the second half, Georgia put him at left tackle, with Xavier Truss taking over at right guard and Amarius Mims coming in at right tackle.

“I think Broderick playing at tackle, gained confidence there,” Smart said. “Helps give you that option. Broderick’s first real substantial playing time outside of games we had leads in last year.”

Smart referenced that finding Georgia’s five best offensive linemen is often like putting together a puzzle. Puzzles take time to come together, which explains why Georgia is still looking to solidify its line entering the third game of the year.

The running backs haven’t been part of the problem in the first two games, with Cook and Kenny McIntosh both scoring touchdowns against UAB.

In the win over Clemson, Zamir White and Kendall Milton had no problem running through second-level defenders when given the opportunity. That just didn’t happen very often against the Blazers.

“I feel like we have the ability to get as far as we want,” McIntosh said. “Our o-line is very talented and has a lot of great players that can get that push and be able to get to the second level. Which is how you cause explosive plays for the running backs. Having that connection is going to take us a far way.”

Related: Report card: Georgia football takes UAB to school in 56-7 win, ‘Mailman’ Stetson Bennett delivers

Smart wants to see his offensive linemen play physical and aggressive. That was a constant when Sam Pittman was the offensive line coach for Georgia from 2016 through 2019. That physicality was on display this past week for Pittman’s new team as the Arkansas Razorbacks rolled up 333 yards on the Texas Longhorns.

“He did a great job with our organization,” Smart said of Pittman on Monday. “I heard they played really well. I’m excited for him and honored that he was here. I’m happy that he helped build this place.”

Under Matt Luke that hasn’t always been the case. Georgia’s offense was held under 50 rushing yards against Mississippi State and Cincinnati to end the 2020 season. Both those games had JT Daniels under center as well.

Georgia won’t get a break this week when it comes to opposing defensive fronts when it welcomes South Carolina to Sanford Stadium. The strength of South Carolina’s team is its defensive line with the likes of Kingsley Enagbare, Aaron Sterling, Jabari Ellis and Zacch Pickens.

Through two games — albeit against teams worse than Clemson and UAB — South Carolina has allowed just 3.52 yards per play, which is good for fifth in the country. Georgia ranks second in that stat at 3.13 by comparison.

The Bulldogs will return to the practice field on Monday and continue to work on the puzzle that is its offensive line. Whether Salyer slides in to guard or Georgia places Jones at tackle will depend on how the group looks and practices this week.

“They just played hard and got after it,” Cook said of UAB. “We just got to strain a little bit harder on the offensive line and we’ll be fine. We’ll get back to practice on Monday and fix things from there.”

Kirby Smart speaks bluntly about Georgia offensive line

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