Former All-American expects UGA offensive line to remain a strength despite departures
One of the hallmarks of Georgia under coach Kirby Smart has been a big, physical offensive line. Despite the offseason departure of offensive line coach Sam Pittman — who became head coach at Arkansas — and the loss of three starters to the NFL draft, expectations remain high that the Bulldogs can field a formidable unit once again.
However, that will require some newcomers to the program — or possibly some players who’ve been waiting in the wings in reserve roles — to get quickly acclimated to the challenge of facing SEC defensive lines as they prepare to fill the shoes of former tackles Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, both of whom were first-round picks in April, as well as former guard Solomon Kindley, who was a fourth-round pick.
Former Bulldogs offensive lineman Jon Stinchcomb, who was an All-American tackle in 2002, believes a successful transition is possible.
“There’s such good options there,” Stinchcomb recently said on DawgNation Daily. “Across the SEC, and really around the country, they would be chomping at the bit to have the level of talent Georgia has — despite the uncertainty of losing three starters to the NFL draft.
“Georgia’s got a bevy of players in that room that are highly capable and I think are just waiting for the opportunity to prove the merit that their names brought once they signed a letter of intent to come to the University of Georgia.”
One of the easiest names to fill in as a new starter is probably rising junior Jamaree Salyer. — a former five-star signee from the 2018 class.
Salyer’s reputation has been growing since being called upon to start at right tackle in the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl win vs. Baylor.
“Jamaree really solidified himself in showing that he’s going to be more than capable of being a starter and holding his own,” Stinchcomb said. “That’s no longer in question. Now you’re talking about how good he can be.”
Salyer’s Sugar Bowl performance is even more impressive given the change that was happening around him at the time. In addition to players leaving for the NFL, new offensive line coach Matt Luke was also stepping in for the first time in place of Pittman.
Yet the Bulldogs’ offensive line still got the job done.
“Those guys stepped up to the challenge,” Luke told DawgNation after the Sugar Bowl. “We had three normal starters out… and those guys went wire to wire and played every snap. I’m really proud of those guys for stepping up.”
Now Salyer could be ready to take an even bigger step this season.
He’s spent much of the offseason showcasing a newly slimmed-down frame, and the efforts that have led to that body transformation have some saying he could be ready to emerge as a leader and a possible starter at left tackle, arguably the offensive line’s most important position.
“He’s going to be a great player,” Thomas — who was also a high school teammate of Salyer’s at Pace Academy — told DawgNation in March. “He has kept his head up and continued to fight. He’s going to be the anchor along that offensive line.”
If Salyer earns the nod at left tackle, that leaves a crucial position battle at right tackle between guys who’ve been in the program and a couple of hyped recent arrivals.
Xavier Truss was a four-star prospect from the 2019 class and the former No. 1 player in the state of Rhode Island. He appeared in three games for the Bulldogs a year ago, and is thought to be solidly in the mix to possibly replace Wilson on the right side this year.
A similar statement could be made for Warren McClendon — another four-star 2019 signee who played in four games for UGA last season.
Owen Condon — who has appeared in four games over his two years at UGA — could join the fight as well as two elite 2020 signees, Broderick Jones and Tate Ratledge.
Stinchcomb thinks the guys who’ve gained some experience in the program could have the early advantage over the incoming freshmen.
“I think [experience] makes a considerable difference because they’ve seen the power and speed of some of these elite outside linebackers and defensive ends in the SEC — mainly because they’ve practiced against them on a week in and week out basis,” Stinchcomb said. “For some of these guys, just last season, but for some of the others that’s two years of facing that level of competition.”
Stinchcomb says he’d favor Truss slightly in the competition for now. However, Jones — because he was a five-star signee — will almost certainly be the subject of much curiosity among UGA fans once practice begins.
“Having seen Broderick’s film coming out of high school, he’s big. He’s athletic. He moves really well,” Stinchcomb said. “I can see why he was as highly-regarded as he is. But you have to lean on the fact that these aren’t scrubs we are talking about — Truss, Condon, McClendon. They came in highly-touted in their own regard.
“He’s not walking into an empty space. There’s not this gaping void where there’s no talent in-house.
“I think if I were to make a projection, it’s one of your veterans that gets the starting nod. But you could see Broderick Jones get reps throughout the season in a rotational basis probably at the beginning of the season, and then who knows what happens by the end of the year. I think he’s a special talent, but I think there’s a lot of talent in that room.”
No matter who ultimately wins the competition at right tackle, Stinchcomb believes UGA will be in good hands.
“It’s not going to be a position of weakness,” Stinchcomb said. “It’s not like you’re going to have to hide the right tackle spot.”
Stinchcomb’s assessment, if it turns out to be true, would be good news for UGA. The Bulldogs almost certainly feel confident in the offensive line’s two returning starters — center Trey Hill and right guard Ben Cleveland. If Thomas and Wilson can be replaced with quality starters at the tackle spots, the offensive line should once again be one of UGA’s strengths.