Many fans are wondering how Kirby Smart could have the Georgia Bulldogs headed to the Rose Bowl and a spot in the College Football Playoff in just his second year on the job. Many new coaches take three or four years to do what Smart has done in just two quick seasons.
It’s simple, really. Go back to Smart’s first press conference when he was introduced as Georgia’s coach. Smart said that day Georgia had to get better on the lines of scrimmage.
Just two months earlier, Smart’s former team, Alabama, had waltzed into Sanford Stadium and beaten Georgia 38-10. That Alabama team won a national championship that year, and the staple of every great Alabama team under head coach Nick Saban has been great lines of scrimmage.
So Smart knew from seeing what Georgia had in 2015, a year that the Bulldogs won nine regular season games, that the lines of scrimmage were keeping Georgia from being great. They were good, but not great.
Have you heard that line in this space before? The difference between good and great. Georgia was good under Mark Richt for 15 years, but they were rarely great. It was usually because the lines of scrimmage were not dominant.
Go back to 2008 when Georgia was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the preseason number one team in the country. The Bulldogs had a junior quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a player who was destined to be a top (or the top) NFL draft pick, and Knowshon Moreno, one of the top running backs in the country. A.J. Green, the top wide receiver prospect in the country, was coming in as a true freshman.
But the offensive line was a mess. They had to replace Fernando Velasco as the starting center with true freshman Ben Jones, after a guard who moved to center (Chris Davis) didn’t work out. They had to replace senior right tackle Chester Adams, and three different players tried. Trinton Sturdivant, the previous season’s starting left tackle, tore his ACL in the preseason and missed the entire season. The offensive line depth in 2008 was horrendous.
Georgia was 10-3 that season, which was good but not great. The Bulldogs fell short of their preseason top ranking. They couldn’t play with Alabama (that was the 41-30 loss that started off as a 31-0 lead for the Crimson Tide) and lost to Florida and Georgia Tech. Could the instability on the offensive line perhaps have contributed to the good but not great 2008 Georgia season?
In Richt’s 15 years at Georgia, he brought in only one five-star offensive line prospect – John Theus. Richt concentrated on skill players instead of the offensive line. It allowed his teams to be good, but rarely great.
Fast forward to this season. Smart and his much-respected offensive line coach Sam Pittman, put together a brand new offensive line. Lamont Galliard, who started 13 games last season at right guard, has replaced Brandon Kublanow and has been a tremendous upgrade. And Isaiah Wynn, who started 12 games last season at left guard, moved to left tackle and is now second-team All-American.
Freshman Andrew Thomas took over at right tackle and is a first-team member of the SEC All-Freshmen team. So is Solomon Kindley, who was a redshirt freshman this year. Even when Kindley struggled against Auburn, he was replaced by Ben Cleveland, who may even be an upgrade. And Kendall Baker has been a pleasant surprise as a first-year starter at the other guard position.
The quarterback, Jake Fromm, and the running backs, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, may get all the love, but this brand new offensive line should get the credit for Georgia being where they are. Except for the one game at Auburn, the offensive line has been outstanding. And even after they were pushed around at Auburn, the linemen made sure it didn’t happen again in the SEC Championship game.
And Smart isn’t slowing down. Houston County’s Trey Hill, rated as the second-best guard prospect in the country, committed to Georgia on Monday night. The top-rated guard, Jamaree Salyer from Pace Academy in Atlanta, is currently leaning to Georgia.
The defensive line depth Smart assembled is unprecedented. He’s got veteran starters and then he’s three-deep up front with younger, developing talent. That depth has helped the defense stay fresh and stay productive all season.
So why is Georgia headed to Pasadena in two-plus weeks? It’s the lines of scrimmage, particularly the improvement in the offensive line. And it’s just how Smart drew it up when he got to Athens two years ago.
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