By the Numbers, Offensive Line on Right Track
Georgia’s offensive line, which was recognized as a glaring weakness for the Bulldogs in 2015 and 2016, received much of the blame for the team’s inadequacy on offense during the previous two seasons. Therefore, it seemed appropriate when head coach Kirby Smart addressed the unit in his opening statement of Monday’s press conference—the first of fall camp.
“We’re going to have a lot of shuffling across the offensive line throughout camp,” Smart said. “I am excited about the opportunity for those guys. I think they’re up to the challenge.”
And, a challenge it evidently will be.
After averaging approximately four-and-a-half offensive touchdowns per game over four seasons from 2011 through 2014, Georgia’s offensive woes in 2015 included crossing the opposing goal line an average of fewer than three times per contest while the team scored only 26.3 points per game. The Bulldogs performed even worse last season by an average of nearly two fewer points, marking the first time in 20 years since 1995-1996 that Georgia had been limited to less than 27 points per game in back-to-back seasons.
And, the offensive line—arguably the most important unit in football—is seemingly Georgia’s biggest question mark for 2017. Nevertheless, according to the line’s most seasoned veteran, the unit has been coming along just fine.
“Great—we’re great,” said senior tackle Isaiah Wynn when asked to give his overall assessment of the offensive line. “Coming off the spring, we’re filling in a lot of missing links that we had, but we’re great.”
Speaking of missing links, if an offensive line’s returning experience is a major factor in anticipating success, Georgia could have problems again up front in 2017 for the third consecutive season. The Bulldogs return only two starters from its offensive line of a year ago, and both returning starters are slotted at different positions that they primarily played in 2016: Wynn has moved from left guard to left tackle and Lamont Gaillard from right guard to center. In addition, Georgia returns only 43 career starts along its offensive line—Wynn (25), Gaillard (13), Dyshon Sims (3), and Aulden Bynum (2)—the team's fewest since 2012, and its second-fewest the last nine years.
Still, it should be noted, historically, Georgia has actually performed well as a team when featuring an inexperienced offensive line. Beginning in 1990, the Bulldogs’ top four seasons of returning offensive line career starts—2010, 2005, 2013, and 2009—yielded an average record of just 8 wins and 5 losses, whereas the bottom four seasons—2003, 2008, 2007, and 2012—remarkably wound up with an average record of 11 wins and 2.5 losses.
Also, what Georgia’s offensive line may lack in returning experience, it possesses in depth. Although the Bulldogs return only two starters, and just two others with starting experience, back are four additional linemen for a total of eight who saw playing time in 2016.
“We’re at least two deep,” said Wynn when asked about the unit’s depth. “And, the second string is all pushing the first string.”
On Monday, Smart also indicated the importance of the line’s depth.
“I think they are going to be a really key, integral part for our success—to figure out who are the best eight, who are the best 10. How many do we have that can play winning football on the offensive line?”
Also from a numbers angle, unlike evidently returning experience, it can be argued the sheer number of offensive line signees would be a factor in how the unit eventually performs—with the more signed, the better.
Notably, from 2001 through 2007, or the first seven years of the Mark Richt head-coaching era, the Bulldogs annually averaged nearly five (4.9) offensive line signees. However, beginning in 2008, or the season many Bulldog enthusiasts point to when the Richt era slowly began to decline, through the head coach’s final year of 2015, Georgia curiously only averaged about three-and-a-half (3.6) offensive line signees on an annual basis.
In contrary to the last half of the Richt’s tenure, Smart and his staff inked six offensive line signees this past February (including D’Antne Demery who was released by the team after being arrested in April)—a total Georgia had not exceeded since signing eight offensive linemen a decade ago (2007). Adding to the unit’s depth are true freshmen Isaiah Wilson, a five-star prospect according to Rivals, Andrew Thomas, D’Marcus Hayes and Netori Johnson—all four-star players—and three-star Justin Shaffer.
Worthy of mention, of the offensive line signees from 2014 through 2016 for Oklahoma, Alabama, and Ohio State—or, a trio of teams who were distinguished as having formidable offensive lines last season—the number rated as four or five-star prospects were eight, 12, and 12, respectively. Contrarily, the number of four-star or higher offensive linemen signed by Georgia during the same period was four; however, that same total was landed by the Bulldogs in just 2017 alone.
Still, when can any impact possibly be made by a group of mere freshmen?
“Oh, probably about the first week of [fall] camp,” said Wynn. “During the summer, you cannot really tell too much (about freshmen offensive linemen) [besides] the weight room aspect, but it all changes when you get on the field.”
On the field, if—as it has been said—an offense is only as good as its offensive line, and games are won and lost in the trenches, an offensive line needs to perform better than sufficient, if not first-rate, if its team is to experience success. Subsequently, Georgia appears to be on the right track. Considering its returning offensive linemen—whether the group is considered experienced or inexperienced—plus, the quantity and quality of the Bulldogs’ recent offensive line signees, just as much as the unit was recognized as a weakness the previous two seasons, Georgia’s offensive line could be perceived as a team strength, if not this season, certainly in 2018 and beyond.