ATHENS -- Kolton Houston was sitting on his couch the afternoon of Dec. 12 when he got a call from Jim Booz, who is Georgia’s compliance director.
Houston had been waiting for the call, and experience had caused him to fear the worst.
“So I was like, ‘OK, here we go,’ ” Houston said. “But it worked out.”
The NCAA had granted Houston a sixth year of eligibility. Coupled with John Theus’ decision to return for his senior year, it meant that Georgia’s offensive line is in great shape for next season.
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Four starters are set to return from a unit that was an unexpected strength this season: tackles Theus and Houston, and guards Greg Pyke and Brandon Kublanow.
The downside is the one starter who isn’t returning was the most important one. Senior David Andrews, a second-team AP All-SEC pick who was named the permanent team captain in a vote by teammates.
“You can’t really replace someone like Boss. He’s such a great guy, such a great leader. He was pretty much the heart and soul of the offensive line,” Pyke said. “But it’s nice returning four of the five.”
Indeed, it should be huge to a Georgia offense that will be working in a new quarterback and loses its two leading receivers. It’s a nice position for Georgia’s line to be in. Considered the weak link of the offense in recent years, it came together to be a strong point in 2014.
“They had their act together, and they stayed healthy,” head coach Mark Richt said.
There was a balance to the line this year, as Richt pointed out. It ran-block well, opening up holes for Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb and company. Georgia enters the bowl season seventh nationally and first in the SEC at 6.1 yards per carry. The line pass protected well, too. The Bulldogs have yielded 15 sacks, fourth-best in the SEC, and much improved from the 26.8 sacks allowed per season from 2010-13.
So what happened this year? Andrews was his usual self, and he continued to provide vital leadership. But the other four spots ended up being just as stable.
Houston and Theus had alternated at right tackle in 2013. But Theus was moved to left tackle in the spring, and the two became reliable bookends.
Theus, a five-star recruit coming out of high school, has started to live up to that hype, but not enough that he felt he was ready to turn pro early.
“I pretty much knew I had a lot to work on and to come back,” Theus said. “And a lot of stuff here as a team we want to accomplish, we haven’t done. I didn’t really entertain the idea of leaving.”
Then there are the guard spots, which both went to new starters. Brandon Kublanow, who played sparingly as a freshman in 2013, won the left guard spot, and with the exception of a few key holding penalties had a solid year.
Finally there was Pyke, who was a revelation at right guard. The third-year sophomore, who hadn’t played any offensive snaps his first two years, ended up being an honorable mention All-SEC pick.
“I’ve come a long way, coming down from little Baltimore, playing on a team that had 30 kids, most of whom were just lacrosse players staying in shape,” Pyke said. “I’ve come a long way, and I think Georgia’s a great place, and I’m just so blessed that I came here.”
That leaves the center position as the main source of intrigue heading into next season. Junior Hunter Long was the main backup this season, and freshman Isaiah Wynn will get a look. So could Houston.
In the meantime, this year’s line has one more game to stamp its status as the best Georgia has had in five years.
“Sometimes they’re not really good at both, but I think the balance we’ve had offensively over the years, to be able to run and throw the ball like we do and protect the quarterback like we do, they’ve done a great job,” Richt said.