Pre-spring analysis: Competition intense, options many at tackle

There are indications that Kendall Baker could be ready to step into the challenging role of playing left tackle for Georgia this year.

ATHENS — Kolton Houston is not a coach. But having played offensive line at Georgia the past six years, one could certainly say he’s qualified to be one.

Houston

A starter the last three years of his prolonged college career, Houston is currently training in Atlanta for the NFL draft. But we reached out to him in this instance to try to get some insight into the Bulldogs’ muddled situation on the offensive line, and at tackle in particular.

Houston and his buddy John Theus started at the two tackle positions most of the last three seasons at Georgia. Now that they’ve moved on, there are actually only three tackles listed on the Bulldogs’ spring roster. They are Kendall Baker, Aulden Bynum and a walk-on named Alex Essex.

But there are another five linemen listed simply as “OL” and, including three freshman signees, there are 16 scholarship offensive linemen overall.  Any of them could be designated to play tackle under position coach Sam Pittman and the new offensive staff.

So at this point, who might even contend for the position is incredibly murky. This is where Houston comes in. He has at least seen a lot of these toiling-in-obscurity linemen putting in the work on the practice field.

“If you’re a lineman and you come in as a freshman, you either get redshirted and you get thrown in with the crowd or you’re a starter right away,” said Houston, who is training with Theus at GATA in Johns Creek. “There’s no in-between, in my opinion. So those guys like Pat Allen and Sage Hardin, it’s hard to tell how soon they’ll be able to play. I do think they’ll eventually be able to play, but I couldn’t accurately say when that would be.”

Allen (6-foot-4, 297 pounds) and Hardin (6-6, 281) are former 4-star recruits who are among four redshirt freshmen listed as “OLs,” whose size would indicate they’ll likely get a hard look at tackle. The other two are Mirko Jurkovic (6-5, 275) and Sam Madden (6-6, 346).

Georgia also has three incoming recruits who seem destined to play tackle: Rhode Island transfer Tyler Catalina (6-5, 315), early enrollee Ben Cleveland (6-6, 345) and freshman signee Solomon Kindley (6-4, 370).

But Houston believes there’s a good chance Georgia’s tackles will come from a group of players who have already been on campus a while.

“Kendall Baker, Dyshon (Sims), all those cats, they can play tackle,” Houston said. “It’s just a matter if they can be consistent on a down-to-down basis. Offensive line, next to the quarterback, is the hardest mental position out there. It takes a lot to be able to play and a lot goes through one’s head, all the thought processes of a play. Sometimes that can really set a kid back and not let his full athletic ability and football talent show.”

Houston said the best thing Georgia has going for it is options. Lots of them.

“You can never have enough bodies on the offensive line,” he said. “I think that’s what we’ve always struggled with at Georgia is our coaches never trusted more than about seven of us in a game. If they can get 10 guys that they can throw in there, that’d be pretty big.”

Houston will continue to weigh in as we break it down. …

LEFT TACKLE

  • Returning starter: None
  • Others returning: Isaiah Wynn, Jr.; Dyshon Sims, Jr.; Aulden Bynum, Jr.; Kendall Baker, RSo.; Jake Edwards, So.; Pat Allen, RFr.; Mirko Jurkovic, RFr.; Sage Hardin, RFr.; Sam Madden, RFr.
  • Early enrollees: Ben Cleveland, Fr.
  • On the way: Tyler Catalina, Sr.; Chris Barnes, Fr.; Solomon Kindley, Fr.
  • Analysis: Wynn (6-2, 278) ended up starting the last five games of the season at left tackle in the big shakeup after the loss to Florida. But Houston believes Wynn will end up moving back to left guard, where he excelled before and his body type is more suitable. That leaves left tackle wide open. Junior Aulden Bynum was listed as Theus’ backup most of the season but didn’t get much actual playing time there. Houston believes Baker might be the best fit athletically. “There were times all through last year that Kendall could have been our best offensive lineman,” he said. “He knows this so it’s not like I’m calling him out. He just wasn’t consistent enough. To play offensive line, you’ve got to put a lot of good snaps together back-to-back-to-back and not have a lot of ups-and-downs. But there are times Kendall has the prettiest pass fit. He’s strong off the ball, he’s really athletic, he’s good. He’s got a little bit clearer path in front of him, so hopefully he can step up and help his team out.”
  • Bottom line: Having the quarterback’s blindside covered is too important to risk to inconsistency. So for insurance, Georgia is bringing in the transfer Catalina. Catalina started the last two seasons at left tackle at Rhode Island, where he was also voted team captain last year. So look for him to provide leadership and stability until Baker, Bynum or one of the other younger tackles can prove they know what they’re doing on a consistent basis.

RIGHT TACKLE

  • Returning starter: None.
  • Others returning: Dyshon Sims, Jr.; Jake Edwards, So.; Aulden Bynum, Jr.; Kendall Baker, RSo.; Pat Allen, RFr.; Mirko Jurkovic, RFr.; Sage Hardin, RFr.; Sam Madden, RFr.
  • Early enrollees: Ben Cleveland, Fr.
  • On the way: Tyler Catalina, Sr.; Chris Barnes, Fr.; Solomon Kindley, Fr.
  • Analysis: Generally, the right tackle in a run-based, pro-style offense is one of the biggest, strongest linemen on the roster. His primary task is to seal off and collapse the defense’s left flank long enough for a fullback to shoot through to the second level and give one of the Bulldogs’ all-star tailbacks a chance to take it to the house. Looking at Georgia’s SEC championship game participants over the years, right tackle was manned by players like Kareem Marshall (6-5, 328), Max Jean-Gilles (6-4, 340), Daniel Inman (6-7, 328), Dennis Roland (6-9, 309) and Theus (6-6, 309). Georgia has a few candidates that fit that bill, but not many.
  • Bottom line: Clearly Georgia recruited the likes of Cleveland and Kindley to fill such a role. But to expect true freshmen to play a significant role early seems unrealistic. Houston says keep an eye on Madden. “Sam can actually move. He can bend and move pretty good for being built like he is.” Despite the presence of Jacob Eason at quarterback, Houston believes Georgia will continue to be a heavily run-oriented team, thus the need for strong run-blockers. “I think (Georgia will play offense) a lot like Arkansas, and the same thing that we were with (Mike) Bobo. They’re going to run first, I would imagine.”
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