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Philip Williams/UGA
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney (left) and offensive line coach Sam Pittman both have big jobs to do to get the Bulldogs moving again in 2017.

O-line must come through for Dogs to meet expectations

ATHENS — Sam Pittman is a great offensive line coach. That’s his reputation at least. Kirby Smart thought so when he targeted Pittman as one of his first assistant coach hires in December 2015.

Well, we’re about to find out just how good Pittman is. Nobody on the Georgia staff — or maybe in the SEC — has a bigger challenge than the Bulldogs’ beloved O-line coach has this season.

Apparently media members who cover the SEC also have a lot of faith in Pittman. They must considering the majority of them picked Georgia to win the SEC East. The Bulldogs narrowly edged Florida 1,572 points to 1,526 in voting at SEC Media Days this past week.

I didn’t participate in that vote as it’s against company policy. But I wouldn’t have picked Georgia if I had. And the reason is the offensive line.

Georgia offensive lineman Pat Allen (58) Bulldogs' spring practice
Georgia guard Pat Allen (58) pulls during one of the Bulldogs’ spring practices this past April. The redshirt sophomore is one of five players starting at a new position on the line for Georgia. (John Paul Van Wert/Special)

That’s the one glaring deficiency I see on this team and I can’t get past it. It’s too important. So much depends on it. For evidence, you need look no farther back than last season.

The Bulldogs were 11th in the league last year in both scoring and total offense. That continued the steady decline we’ve witnessed on that side of the ball since 2014. You can point to quarterback play for that and maybe on offensive coordination and/or play-calling. But chiefly I put that on the offensive line.

I mean, it’s not like Georgia was devoid of offensive play-makers. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel didn’t forget how to run the football. The fact is, they often had nowhere to run. And that subsequently led to all kinds of problems.

That’s what concerns me about Georgia this season. As Smart often points out, “this is a line of scrimmage league,” and when you look at the Bulldogs from that perspective, it’s disconcerting.

Think about it. Based on the way Georgia will enter preseason camp in two weeks, it will have a new starter at every position along the line. I’m counting Isaiah Wynn in that tally, so you could take issue with me on that point. The rising senior who exited spring practice as the No. 1 left tackle started the last game of last season there and got five starts at left tackle in 2015. So he has some experience. But with a 6-foot-2, 302-pound frame and the majority of his career starts coming at left guard — including 12 last season — he’s basically a guard playing tackle.

That means whoever plays in Wynn’s left-guard spot (likely Pat Allen or Dyshon Sims) will be a first-time starter. Lamont Gaillard moved from guard to center, so he’s a rookie there. Solomon Kindley or Ben Cleveland will be a first-timer at right guard. Whoever lines up at right tackle — and that could be anybody at this point — will be a first-timer.

This is not a recipe for cooking up a championship-caliber offense, and I don’t care who you have at quarterback or running back or receiver. We saw that last year as Georgia limped along at 4.7 yards per carry and 5.4 yards per play. That was bottom third of the league.

Granted, it’s not a static situation. That’s where Pittman comes in.

These guys who have been waiting in the wings are supposed to be getting better. That’s the concept. Smart and Chubb had a lot of positive things to say at SEC Media Days about the development of Cleveland and the other returnees on the line.

And, lest we forget, Pittman is the man chiefly responsible for the recruiting the Bulldogs have done on the offensive line the past two years. That’s been impressive. Georgia signed six in this last class (only five actually made it to campus) and they’re all of the blue-chip variety. The thought is that 5-star Isaiah Wilson of Brooklyn, N.Y., or Andrew Thomas of Atlanta, or one or two of the others can come in and contribute immediately, if not start.

It’s been done before. Remember 2007 when freshman Trinton Sturdivant came in from North Carolina and started every game at left tackle as a true freshman? Freshman Clint Boling also started at guard that year. Georgia went 11-2 and finished No. 2 in in the country. Cordy Glenn did the same thing in 2008 and John Theus in 2012.

So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. But we all know it’s generally not a good thing to be counting on freshmen to come through on the offensive line. Florida is not counting on freshman O-linemen, and that’s one of the reasons I’d give the Gators the nod in the East this year.

Georgia also has an offensive identity issue. The Bulldogs want to be a smash-mouth, run-oriented football team, but that’s awfully hard to do with a developing offensive line and a quarterback that prefers to line up in the shotgun every play. It has created quite the quandary for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who is probably feeling more heat than his buddy Pittman heading into camp.

That said, I believe Georgia is very, very close to being championship-caliber. I really, really like the Dogs’ defense and I think that’s what will make them competitive this season. Their special teams remain suspect, in my opinion, and there must be marked improvement in all areas of those units. But they’re close, and the right bit of magic on offense could put them over the top.

But I still think 2018 is setting up to be a big year for the Dogs. If 2017 is, then Pittman should win the Broyles Award for assistant coach of the year.