JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They’re undefeated, ranked No. 3 in the nation and a two-touchdown favorite over Florida heading into the game Saturday at EverBank Field. So how did the Georgia Bulldogs get here?
There are a lot of reasons, but none more crucial and substantive than the way the offensive line has come through.
We’re at the point in the season that it’s accountability time. That goes for sports writers as well as teams.
I didn’t think Georgia was going to win the East this season. Granted, the Bulldogs still haven’t, and the game against Florida will go a long way toward determining if they actually will. But I believe they will now.
Way back in the middle of the summer, back in July when I was in Birmingham, Ala., for SEC Football Media Days, I didn’t think Georgia was going to win the SEC East. I thought Florida would.
Though there are still mathematical possibilities, I’m pretty certain that’s not going to happen for the Gators (3-3, 3-2 SEC). There are a lot of reasons for that. You can start with season-long suspensions for nine players and continued substandard play at quarterback.
But I think the Bulldogs ARE going to win the East now. And for all the reasons I thought they weren’t this summer.
Chief among those is the offensive line. That was the main area of concern for me and ultimately what I thought might hold back the Bulldogs. There were some other reasons as well, but up front was the primary one.
Everybody knew that Georgia would come into the season needing to replace three starters on the offensive line, but it was even more of an overhaul than that. The fact of the matter is the Bulldogs were going to be utilizing new starters at all five positions up front.
I think we were all in agreement that Georgia’s offensive line didn’t play well in 2016, but losing three seniors is never a small thing. And say what you want about Tyler Catalina, who was playing out of position at left tackle, but he made the Washington Redskins’ roster as a free agent. Center Brandon Kublanow and right tackle Greg Pyke played in a lot of games for the Bulldogs as well.
Meanwhile, the two returning starters were both going to be playing new positions for the Bulldogs. Isaiah Wynn had logged a couple of games at left tackle, but left guard had always been his primary position. And Lamont Gaillard moving from right guard to center was the most crucial adjustment of all. To say that kid has come through would be an understatement.
“That boy’s incredible,” said Kendall Baker, another first-year starter who is coming through for the Bulldogs at left guard. “All the stuff that he does is ridiculous. He’s calling out this, he’s calling out that. From last year just playing guard and now he’s running the whole offense basically, that’s crazy. And he’s my brother. I love him to death.”
That sentiment about Gaillard is one you’ll hear echoed among Georgia’s offensive players. The center is not only in charge of delivering the ball safely and securely to the quarterback, but he’s also charged with identifying the alignment of the defense’s front seven and calling out adjustments for the line accordingly.
Last time I checked, the Bulldogs had not mishandled an exchange all season. And while the line isn’t necessarily blowing teams off the ball, Georgia has, in fact, improved from 11th to second in scoring in the SEC, from ninth to second in rushing and from 11th to third in total offense.
Gaillard (pronounced GILL-yard) has had a lot to do with that.
“I hope you didn’t just jinx it,” senior tailback Sony Michel said of the smooth exchanges. “Lamont’s been doing a great job just by leading. By him leading it has given him more confidence and, just by being in that position, guys trust him. That’s a tough position, just making calls and stuff. I think he took that role and ran with it.”
When I looked closely at this team over the summer, there were a lot of other flaws I saw as well. I told anybody who asked I thought Georgia would need to get much better play out of the quarterback position. At the time, I was thinking Jacob Eason was going to have to step up his game. I wouldn’t have guessed then that the Bulldogs actually would be doing that with a new quarterback.
I also thought the Bulldogs were going to have to identify a go-to receiver along the lines of Isaiah McKenzie. As it turns out, they haven’t really had to rely too much on any one receiver. But while Georgia isn’t throwing the ball a lot – it’s last in the SEC in passing (171.4 yards per game) – the wide receiving corps has proved a reliable unit. Terry Godwin, Javon Wims and Mecole Hardman have been solid and occasionally spectacular.
The other significant blemish I was seeing was Georgia’s special teams play. Certainly, walk-on Rodrigo Blankenship had been reliable at kicker, but not necessarily a weapon in the traditional sense. He enters the game against Florida leading the league in field goal percentage at .910 (10 of 11), and he already has nearly twice the touchbacks (37) he had all of last season (21), already has made a game-winning field goal (30 yards vs. Notre Dame) and had a game with 4 field goals (Missouri).
Even more stark has been the turnaround in the punting game. Georgia was 13th in the league in net punting last season (34.9 yards). Thanks to Cameron Nizialek coming in as a graduate transfer from Columbia, of all places, the Bulldogs are No. 2 in the league in net punting (43.3).
Georgia’s returns game has left a little to be desired in McKenzie’s absence, but it has not been a liability. Hardman has been an eyelash away from breaking a couple of returns for long runs.
We all knew the Georgia defense should be stout with 10 returning starters. It has been. The biggest concern was whether the secondary was going to be able adjust to the loss of nickelback Mo Smith. It has, and though some might say it’s not an elite unit, it has survived more than a few injury hits.
But when we reassess this team at this point, it’s always going to be the offensive line and quarterback position that I come back to. I’ve waxed often about how much better the offense seems to operate with Jake Fromm under center. But none of that would be possible if Gaillard weren’t delivering him the ball without incident and the line weren’t taking care of business up front.
Baker has proved to be a good fit at left guard, even though the junior had been primarily a tackle throughout his career. Solomon Kindley has been a block of granite at right guard. And the biggest revelation of all has been Andrew Thomas at right tackle. It was the 6-foot-5, 320-pound freshman from Atlanta’s Pace Academy that came through at that position, and not big Ben Cleveland or Brooklyn’s Isaiah Wilson, as many suspected.
Whatever the makeup, it’s the big uglies up front who have changed the arc of this season. Or at least one man’s opinion of it.
“I’d say it’s more of guys playing for each other, pushing each other, correcting each other, just being there for each other,” Michel said of Georgia’s offensive line. “I think that plays a big part in it ― guys giving their all for the next guy, guys looking out for each other. It makes them want to play even harder. Even us in the backfield, we kind of challenge those guys, and they challenge us. They want touchdowns, and we want them to block. So we kind of put some competitiveness on them and they put it on us. I think that’s how we’ve come to be a better team.”