Georgia’s front five faces massive task

semerson@macon.comOctober 4, 2012 

ATHENS -- It’s a hard moment to describe adequately, because Will Friend’s facial expression was priceless. Still, one can try.

As Friend, Georgia’s offensive line coach, was speaking to media members this week, he was asked, “Is (freshman right tackle) John Theus’ challenge any different than any other week, with what he’ll be going against?”

Friend didn’t answer for a few seconds, looking incredulously at the other reporters around him. Finally, Friend cracked up into laughter.

“Yes, it’s a little bit different,” he said.

More laughter.

“They’re good players, man,” Friend added.

Jadeveon Clowney, the 6-foot-6, 256-pound man-child who plays defensive end for No. 6 South Carolina, leads the SEC with five sacks. The sophomore is already being pegged by many analysts as the top overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft. And Clowney was responsible for the sack and forced fumble on Aaron Murray that sealed the Gamecocks’ 45-42 win over the Bulldogs last year.

After playing South Carolina last month, UAB head coach Garrick McGee called Clowney “arguably the best player in college football.”

Georgia, in trying to avoid a repeat of last year, could just put as many men as possible on Clowney. But a problem then emerges on the other side of the Gamecocks’ line in senior Devin Taylor, who is 6-8 and 267 pounds, has 3.5 sacks himself, and has 30.5 for his career. He was a first-team all-SEC pick last year.

The interior linemen for South Carolina aren’t too shabby, either. In fact, Murray said he noticed that the Gamecocks don’t blitz much because they trust the front four to apply enough pressure.

“Those are the best defenses, when you trust your players to just make plays, and they do that,” Murray said. “We’ve got our work cut out for us this week when it comes to preparation and making sure we’re ready.”

So far this season, Georgia’s offensive line has been surprisingly effective. But clearly the young line, which has no seniors, is about to see its stiffest test.

Friend is limiting players from speaking to the media. He didn’t see the need for them to answer questions on how good Clowney, Taylor and company are.

“Yeah. I mean, they see the tape,” Friend said, laughing again. “Hey, I don’t have to sit here and talk about it, they can see it on the tape. I mean, they see that those guys can play.”

Georgia is likely to counter through its play calling, as it has much of this season. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo devised a spread offense in part because of the uncertainty about the line heading into the season. It also helps that Murray is a third-year starter, and he has plenty of experienced receivers, even with Michael Bennett out for the season after tearing his ACL this week.

So the Bulldogs likely will continue to employ the shotgun, with four-wide receiver looks, hoping that Murray can find and hit his target before Clowney or Taylor hit him. They also will depend on freshmen tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall to continue their recent ways, to try to keep the defense from keying on the pass.

“I think we’ve been pretty balanced all year long, when it comes to the run game, and passing, and quick passing,” Murray said. “I think as an offense it’s hard to get a grasp on what we’re gonna try to do.”

But then Murray acknowledged that they will have to use different strategies on the two ends, including the backfield as blockers.

That would include fullback Merritt Hall, who until August was a walk-on.

“Be the hammer and not the nail,” Hall said, laughing, when asked how he would approach coming head-to-head with Clowney. “It’s all about momentum and leverage. That’s the way I play, being low and driving my feet, and coming up with some hat-speed.

“But obviously he is a very good player.”

Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo isn’t taking a rosy view. He said this week that Murray has to be ready when he gets hit, and the key will be holding on to the ball, as opposed to what happened in last year’s game.

“You’re gonna get sacked,” Bobo said. “And you’re gonna fumble at times. Sometimes you get the (mess) knocked out of you, and you fumble. But if we see a guy coming and we know we’re gonna get sacked, we’ve gotta protect the ball and do a better job of that.”

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