ATHENS -- Will Friend never thought hard about taking the offensive line coaching job at Georgia. At this point in his career, it was a dream job.
It was only after taking the job that he realized what he had gotten into. And it was in his first game at the Georgia Dome that it looked like it would be a long season.
And yet as the Bulldogs get ready for their second game at the Georgia Dome, this time the SEC championship game, Friend could be forgiven for doing a victory lap -- although he isn’t taking one. Somehow, the depth- and experience-challenged offensive line has not turned into a liability.
“Coach Friend is really a player’s coach,” guard Chris Burnette said. “So the fact that he kept encouraging us and being like, ‘Men, we know what we have here. We understand that people on the outside may not agree with what we think we can do. But as long as we go out and do the best that we can the rest will take care of itself.’ ”
Burnette is an example of how patience, rather than rash changes, paid off for Friend’s unit. The sophomore did not play last year, yet won a job in the spring as the right-guard starter.
On Burnette’s right has been Justin Anderson, a senior who switched back from defense for this season. The other tackle, Cordy Glenn, played guard last year. And the other guard spot alternated between sophomores Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates.
Senior center Ben Jones was the only player starting at the same position as last year. And there was little depth, offseason attrition leaving the unit decimated. So when Georgia allowed six sacks by Boise State in the season opener, the outlook was bleak for this season.
But Friend didn’t overhaul the unit -- which wasn’t too much of an option anyway -- or crack a whip in meetings.
“No, it was move on to the next one,” Friend said.
Playing more games helped. The line is pound-for-pound the biggest in the nation, according to a Sports Illustrated survey.
But after undersized Boise State still abused the front five, some small tactical changes were made.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo adjusted the playcalling, making sure the pass plays have a quicker release and relying less on backfield blocking.
Jones also gets credit from teammates and coaches for keeping the unit together.
“Ben Jones was not gonna let us not have a good year this year and was not gonna let the line not play well,” Bobo said. “You’ve got players who believe, and you’ve got a chance to win.”
But Friend had to help the players believe, too.
“He definitely has a fire to him. When he needs to holler, he knows how to holler. But he’s a guy that he wants you to play your best for him,” Jones said. “It’s a family, and he treats it like that. If it’s something small, he’ll just walk up to you and say, ‘Hey,’ and whisper in your ear, ‘Hey you need to do better on this, you need to pick it up.’ He doesn’t have to (yell at) you every play.
“For me, when he just walks up and says, ‘Hey, what’s the matter? Pick it up.’ You don’t want to let that man down, because he cares about this offensive line more than anyone on the team.”
Friend, 36, was a graduate assistant at Georgia in the early 2000s. He spent the previous four seasons as the line coach at UAB under Neil Callaway, a former Georgia offensive line coach who resigned at UAB this week.
When Georgia’s job opened again last offseason, Friend jumped at the chance.
“I knew he’d do a great job over there,” Callaway said. “He’s a football guy. I mean, he don’t care about nothing but his family and football. He’s got a great demeanor. He’s tough enough to demand that the kids do what they’re supposed to do. Also, he’s loving and caring enough to put his arm around them and help them with whatever problems they’ve got.”
So far that’s been the case. Georgia ranks 34th in the nation in rushing offense. And while it is 70th in sacks allowed, with 25, eight of those came in the first two games. Certainly the offensive line isn’t a strength of the team yet; But it has improved throughout the season.
“They had faith,” Bobo said. “They had faith in what we were doing offensively. They had faith in each other, and they had faith in their coach, Coach Friend. And they just kept practicing and kept believing. He challenged them going into that next week (against South Carolina) that we’re not gonna get bullied, we’re gonna play physical, we’re gonna play like we’re capable of playing. And I think they’ve responded since that time.”