ATHENS – It’s one thing to anticipate a bigger limelight. It’s another thing to experience it. Tyler Catalina figured out pretty quickly he wasn’t at Rhode Island anymore.
When you play offensive line, especially left tackle, you tend to only get noticed when something goes wrong. Especially at a high-profile school like Georgia, and especially this year.
“I think you guys can know the difference about that,” Catalina said with a smile. “Yeah, it seemed like we’ve kind of been the scapegoats for quite some time now. But it’s been a tremendous experience, it’s good all the way through. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: This season has mostly been a struggle for Georgia’s offensive line. Despite two star tailbacks, the Bulldogs rank just ninth in the SEC in rushing yards, and have given up 19 sacks, tied with Tennessee for the 10th-most in the conference.
Catalina, who transferred to Georgia from Rhode Island, an FCS program, bore the brunt of criticism earlier in the year. Some of it was deserved, as he was beaten for sacks, and was adjusting to the speed of SEC football. Some of it was just because he the new guy, and the left tackle, becomes a scapegoat, to use Catalina’s word. The truth is the whole line – which has maintained the same starting lineup all nine games – has had its ups and downs.
“You’ve just got to stick to fundamentals. We’ve just got to continue to work on that during the week. I think we get away from that just because it’s Saturday,” Catalina said. “Our mind’s in a little different place. But I think we’re going to work towards that for the rest of the year.”
Tyler Catalina, a graduate transfer from Rhode Island, has started all nine games at left tackle for Georgia this season. CARROL GAMBRELL / UGA
What if things are improving? Here’s something that’s been overlooked about the win at Kentucky: For the first time all season, Georgia didn’t give up any sacks. In the past that would have meant the quarterback taking the line out for ice cream, but that didn’t happen. Apparently it had been so long people forgot about the tradition.
It hasn’t helped the line this year either that the quarterback is a freshman who isn’t used to being rushed. Catalina, of course, faced his own adjustment coming from Rhode Island, where he was a second-team All-conference selection. Rhode Island ran a spread, he’s had to adjust to a pro style. And of course there’s the difference between the FCS and the best conference in college football.
“I definitely adjusted quite a bit to the speed,” Catalina said. “But it’s different every week. There’s always a guy who’s going to be a little bit quicker, a little bit faster, a little bit stronger. So it’s a continual growth process for me.”
Catalina was a rookie to the SEC and big-time football. It was a transition year, full of adjustments. And yet it’s also the only year he gets, so the improvements he’s made, everything he’s learned, can only to be applied to the remainder of this season.
It makes him wish he had another year of eligibility.
“Oh of course. Seeing what I’ve been coached to do, and knowing what I can do now at this level, obviously I want more years, and more time to develop, so I can prove myself worthy for the next level,” he said. “But I think I’ll be able to continue my growth into the next level and perform well.”
Catalina has accepted an invite to the NFL Player Association All-Star game, a showcase event for draft prospects on Jan. 21 in Los Angeles. He’ll go from there and give it a shot.
“That’s the only reason I came here, to compete against the best talent in the country and prove myself worthy of playing at the next level,” Catalina said.
He was asked what the main thing he’s gotten out of this year.
“Just what I can do for myself,” he said. “How hard I can play and compete at this level.”