ATHENS - It's been no secret that Georgia's offensive line is one of the team's biggest concerns. There may only be one player returning to start at the same position he had last year.
But early in camp, the line may be on the verge of having some clarity, at least in terms of what it will look like.
Head coach Mark Richt said after Friday's practice that six players have separated themselves from the rest: Juniors Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, sophomores Watts Dantzler and David Andrews, and freshman John Theus.
Gates and Burnette are virtually assured starting spots. Gates is ticketed for left tackle, but could move back inside. Burnette, last year's starter at right guard, is all but certain to stay there. Andrews, meanwhile, will have to play badly in preseason to lose his starting center spot.
After that, there is some murkiness: Dantzler and Theus are battling for the right tackle spot, vacated by the ineligible Kolton Houston. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the loser doesn't start.
Theus and Dantzler will get equal reps with the 1s and 2s. That would give each of them enough time playing next to starting guard Chris Burnette. Interestingly, Richt said that if Theus and Dantzler both look good, one of them – almost certainly Dantzler – could go inside.
“There’s a little more competition at the guard than there looks on the surface,” Richt said on Friday. “I mean really it looks like Burnette and Lee. But there’s always a chance that Watts or even Gates for that matter could go inside at guard if need be.”
Offensive line coach Will Friend told Richt that Dantzler has made a real improvement since the spring.
“There’s an edge to him mentally to where he seems really serious about wanting to play and wanting to win a job,” Richt said. “When you’ve got a young guy like Theus behind you it probably is a good motivation. Theus is certainly a guy who has the physical ability and he’s pretty conscientious as well. We think he’s learning pretty quick.”
So what about the rest of the group? They're all still trying to prove to the coaches that they can contribute. One of those is junior college transfer Mark Beard, who has three years of eligibility but no redshirt year available, so he seems likely to see action.
“Beard is mature enough physically and athletically and he’s still getting comfortable with the system," Richt said. "He’s a possible (player). If the light turns on for him – physically I think he can get it done – he’s just gotta get it done with his assignments.”
Freshman Greg Pyke is also having trouble with his assignments, according to Richt. Pyke has been working at second-team right guard.
Tackle Xzavier Ward, a redshirt freshman, also isn’t full speed yet because of his leg injury, and it’s doubtful he’ll be able to play full-speed this season. But the coaches did like what they saw of him in drills.
Sophomore Hunter Long is also working at center, along with walk-on Preston Mobley, and occasionally Lee. But Burnette would still be the center if something happened to Andrews.
“If something happened to David or David just wasn’t getting it done then Burnette would be the next guy,” Richt said.
Junior Austin Long is still working at both tackle spots. He's battled injuries for awhile now and is still trying to catch up.
The required caveat: It's still very early in camp. Friend will speak to the media after Sunday's practice, and he might have some different insight than Richt.
But as I've pointed out before, Friend settled on a starting five last year fairly early, and that was part of the reason it didn't turn out to be quite the disaster as it initially appeared it might. So it's fairly notable, but not surprising, that Richt feels those top six have already separated themselves.