ATHENS — Here’s one possible reason Georgia struggled so much on offense last season: It had guards playing tackle.
At least that seems to be the case based on the projections of NFL scouts. The Bulldogs’ starting left tackle last season, Tyler Catalina, and starting right tackle, Greg Pyke, both say they likely will play guard on the next level. That’s not to say that these guys were bad offensive linemen. Far from it. Both of them are exceptional young men, were Georgia’s best options at each position and gave their best for the Bulldogs.
But the bottom line is a football program of UGA’s pedigree should be producing tackles in college that play tackle in the NFL, and that’s the Bulldogs’ hope going forward.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Catalina or Pyke have long and successful NFL careers. The fact that they competed as hard as they did and as well as they did in the rugged SEC while presumably playing out of position and had all those experiences facing some of the best pass rushers in college football can only help them on the next level.
For some, such as Catalina, getting such experience and being able to take their best shot at the next level was one of the main reasons they came to Georgia. Catalina arrived as a graduate transfer from FCS’s Rhode Island and ended up starting 12 of 13 games at left tackle, the proverbial blindside position.
“I mean, it was an awesome experience throughout,” said Catalina, who is training for the draft in his hometown of Worcester, Mass. “I wanted to see how I could play and know what I could do moving forward to be the best player possible.”
Catalina caught a lot of flak from Georgia fans on Twitter and other social media for his performance this season. But the fact of the matter is he was the Bulldogs’ best option at that extremely difficult position. And they had some other options. Isaiah Wynn, who started most of the season at left guard, slid out to tackle at times and actually started there in the bowl game. But Catalina finished the game there, and he logged most of the snaps all season at left tackle.
And let’s be clear: This isn’t a conspiracy. Georgia, like all Power 5 teams, is going to play its bet players at every position.
For his part, Catalina remained intentionally deaf to the criticism.
“I blocked that stuff out,” he said. “I’m really hard on myself. If I fail at something I’m not happy. I would hope everybody is that way. But if I fail I put the blame on myself and try to work on it as best I can.”
And Catalina found out he had a lot to work on. He said his experience at Georgia in a word was “humbling.”
“Coming from Rhode Island, I performed pretty well being an all-conference player two years in a row,” he said. “Coming here, I didn’t really play the best sometimes. I had some good moments and some bad. It was definitely humbling. It just shows you always need to work every week.”
Georgia allowed 24 sacks in 13 games, which actually wasn’t all that bad. The Bulldogs ranked sixth among the SEC’s 14 teams in that category.
Where UGA really struggled was in overall offensive production, an area of traditional excellence. The Bulldogs were 11th in scoring (24.5 ppg), 11th in total offense (384.7 ypg), 10th in passing (193.5 ypg) and ninth in rushing (191.2 ypg). So they really didn’t do anything particularly well.
As always, that starts and ends with offensive line play. And tackle play is perhaps the most important component of that.
Returnees on Georgia’s roster such as Kendall Baker and Sage Hardin weren’t able to unseat either Catalina or Pyke. So the Bulldogs have gone in hard pursuit of help on that front in its latest recruiting class. They signed six offensive linemen, including a junior college transfer in D’Marcus Hayes out of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Community College (ranked No. 2 among JUCO tackles), 5-star prospect Isaiah Wilson of Brooklyn, N.Y., and U.S. Army All-American D’Antne Demery of Brunswick.
Don’t be surprised, though, if Catalina or Pyke gets a call on draft day.
Granted, it was just one sample size, but Catalina actually put up some very good numbers at UGA’s pro day. He blew away his fellow linemen in the vertical leap at 31 inches, which is exceptional at his size (6-4½, 330 pounds). He also clocked 5.29 seconds in the 40 and he put up 225 pounds on the bench press 29 times. Anything over 25 is considered golden.
The number one rule in NFL offensive line play is one cannot get beat up the middle on passing downs. Both Catalina and Pyke, with their experience playing outside for the Bulldogs, would appear well-suited to do well on that front.
They might not have been all-world tackles, but they could be pretty darn good NFL guards. Hence their expected moves inside. Both of them added about 10 pounds of weight in anticipation of the transition.
“I’m going to continue putting on as much weight as I can without it affecting me,” Catalina said. “I think I’m athletic enough where I can play out in space and I think I’m strong enough to play man-to-man.”
Said Pyke: “I’ll play anywhere they want me to but I’ll probably move back inside. (At Georgia) they needed me at tackle, so I played there. It doesn’t matter to me.”
Here’s hoping that both Bulldogs will be earning NFL paychecks this fall.