Own the East: UGA’s lauded offensive line still has areas in which it can improve
Georgia’s mammoth offensive line is justifiably being discussed as possibly the top unit college football this season, and maybe the best in UGA history. However, that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs front five doesn’t have room for improvement.
Nor does it mean there isn’t a way in which UGA could improve how it chooses to use the group this season.
UGA’s offensive line was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award (given to the nation’s top offensive line) in 2018, but there are plenty of reasons to think the Bulldogs could be even better this season.
Four of UGA’s offensive linemen were listed on preseason All-SEC teams. Left tackle Andrew Thomas was a first-team selection. Left guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Isaiah Wilson were second-team picks, and right guard Ben Cleveland got a third-team nod.
It’s been 19 years since UGA had three All-SEC linemen, but that looms as a realistic possibility this season.
All four of those players will also be draft eligible at year’s end. UGA has had three linemen drafted in the same year six times in program history – most recently in 2012. Yet it has never had four linemen taken in the same draft.
However, if Thomas (a junior), Kindley and Cleveland (both red-shirt juniors) and Wilson (a redshirt sophomore) choose to leave school early, they will all presumably attract attention from scouts if for no other reason than their gargantuan size.
The quartet has an average height of six feet six inches and an average weight of 333 pounds.
Yet the success of UGA’s offensive line is about more than just size.
According to Football Outsiders, UGA was seventh in the country last season in line yards per carry (a stat that assigns offensive lines with a percentage of credit for rushing plays based on the length of the run).
For further context, UGA accomplished that feat while playing the ninth-toughest schedule in the country. Wisconsin – the team that led the nation in line yards per carry – was 50th in schedule strength, and the average schedule strength of the six teams who exceeded the Bulldogs was 43rd.
Of course, one of the linemen who contributed to that success in 2018 is gone. Center Lamont Gaillard has graduated, and in his place is sophomore Trey Hill.
Hill got some experience last season – starting four games at right guard, and playing extensively at center vs. Kentucky after Gaillard departed with an injury.
However, Hill’s lack of experience compared to his teammates has caused some to question how he’ll perform in an expanded role this season.
The SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic recently told DawgNation he had some concerns.
“Lamont Gaillard was a lot better than a lot people thought he was the last few years, Cubelic said. “I still think hearing [offensive line coach] Sam [Pittman] talk about his leadership, that part will be tough to replace.”
Gaillard was undoubtedly a strong leader for the Bulldogs, and it obviously remains to be seen how Hill will fill those shoes. However, there are a few things that can be said of Hill with a degree of certainty.
First of all, He fits right in with his fellow linemen when it comes to recruiting credentials.
Hill was rated as a 4-star prospect according the 247Sports composite — the nation’s No. 62 player for the 2018 class.
Another argument in favor of success for Hill is that being a returning starter on the offensive line might not matter as much as the average fan assumes it does.
Bill Connelly wrote at Football Study Hall that returning starts for offensive linemen actually correlate less with overall team success than returning production in receiving yards, passing yards and rushing yards.
In other words, a talented offensive lineman shouldn’t be discounted just because of limited experience.
That might be good news for UGA. Because for as much as this offensive line has already accomplished, there are still some areas in which it can get better.
Football Outsiders measures a stat known as Power Success Rate. This is the percentage of runs on third and fourth-down plays with two yards or less to gain that result in a first down or touchdown. The Bulldogs were just 33rd in the country in that stat in 2018.
Likewise, UGA was 39th in 2018 in so-called Stuff Rate – which is the percentage of times a ball carrier is stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.
These numbers – while not great — aren’t necessarily bad, but they do offer an opportunity for improvement this season.
The same can be said for the unit’s pass protection.
UGA was 45th in the country in sack rate last season – which is simply the percentage of pass plays that resulted in a sack. And on so-called passing downs (think: third and long) UGA was 75th.
Bulldogs quarterbacks were sacked 8.5 percent of the time in those situations in 2018.
Once again, given the fact there are 130 teams in FBS, being near the national average in a single metric isn’t disastrous, but it’s probably below where UGA hopes to finish this season.
Interestingly, some of the areas in which the Bulldogs could likely be seeking improvement seem to share a commonality.
Power Success Rate essentially measures what happens when running the ball on a play in which a run is expected. Much the same way Passing Down Sack Rate measures what happens when a pass is attempted on a play in which the defense knows it’s coming.
Apparently, Even a great offensive line can only do so much to mitigate predictable scenarios.
Therefore, the big question surrounding UGA’s offensive line this season might not be about how good it is, but instead how well it will be used.
A lot of those unsuccessful power running attempts for the Bulldogs seemed to happen near the goal line last season – a spot where then-offensive coordinator Jim Chaney arguably appeared to rely too much on strength and not enough on creativity.
Likewise, four of the sacks UGA allowed last season came vs. LSU in a game in which the Tigers’ defense always seemed to outmaneuver the Bulldogs’ offensive game plan.
UGA fans hope that isn’t the case this season.
In other words, while there’s room for the Bulldogs offensive line to improve, the overall evolution of the offense under new coordinator James Coley might also have a say in how this group will ultimately be remembered.