Georgia’s line poised to shine

ATHENS — It’s one of those things that may still keep Mark Richt up at night years after he has moved on from Georgia. The potential of a brilliant quarterback and running back matched with an experienced, physical offensive line is something coaches dream about their entire careers. For Richt, he’ll simply have to wonder about what might have been.

But while Georgia never got to see what Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno might do behind a dominant line, Richt is pretty confident the group he’ll have this season can approach that dream scenario, and it’s perhaps his best reason for hope in 2009.

“You can’t go much faster than either your quarterback or offensive line can go,” Richt said. “Now the line is mature, the quarterback’s mature, so there’ll be nothing from a schematic point of view that will hold us back, which is exciting for our coaches.”

Last year, Georgia’s offense figured to be as dynamic as any in the country, but a series of injuries decimated the line and Richt was forced to employ a lineup featuring three freshmen and two sophomores.

The patchwork line managed to produce reasonable results, but Richt said a significant portion of the success was due to the exemplary play of Stafford and Moreno. The three-yard runs Moreno made may not have been game-changers, but he avoided a loss in the backfield. The incomplete passes didn’t move the offense down the field, but it often meant Stafford avoided a sack or a turnover.

Both players will be showing off their skills in the NFL this season, but in their absence, Georgia’s offensive line finally appears healthy, experienced and deep. It’s a trade-off Richt wishes he didn’t have to make, but in the end, it may still be a net gain for the Bulldogs.

“I really believe that if the offensive line matures the way we expect it to, we won’t need as many heroics,” Richt said. “If the quarterback has more time to search the field and the receiver has longer to get open and running backs have more space to run through that line of scrimmage, then your skill guys get better by virtue of your offensive line being better, and we’re hoping that’s the case.”

Stafford and Moreno helped mask many of the growing pains the line experienced a year ago, and in the end, that may be the legacy they leave for this year’s team. Having gone through the gauntlet of an SEC season, freshmen Cordy Glenn, Justin Anderson and Ben Jones made immense strides. Clint Boling figured to be a solid contributor on last year’s line, but after injuries to Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant, he blossomed into a leader. Add a healthy dose of rehabilitation to the numerous injured players, and suddenly this year’s line no longer resembles the patchwork unit Richt employed last season. This year, it is the centerpiece to the entire offense.

“Having that many guys with playing experience that know what they’re doing, I think they’re going to do great in the run game and protecting the passer,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “That’s the thing we’re most excited about.”

In fact, where line coach Stacy Searels faced a weekly struggle to put together five healthy starters a year ago, this season may cause even more consternation due to the sheer number of players who warrant a starting job.

Strudivant’s knee is back to full health, and he appears to have a lock on the starting left tackle job. Boling slides from the left side to the right. Jones, who was one of Georgia’s most impressive freshmen last season, should be the starting center.

At guard, Vance is still a bit behind Sturdivant on the road to a full recovery, but he’s the only senior of the group and is the most likely candidate to start at left guard, while Glenn — Georgia’s other freshman sensation in 2008 — is the leading candidate for the right guard job.

That leaves Anderson, who started seven games, and Chris Davis, who started all 13 games, likely on the sideline. Both players, along with Josh Davis, are recovering from injuries, but all are expected to play this year.

It’s a wealth of riches, and that type of experience is an asset Sturdivant said cannot be overstated.

“When you put a freshman on the field, you don’t know what he’s going to do,” he said. “But with a guy with more experience, you know that if they bring a certain defense, they already know what’s going to happen. You don’t have to actually tell them, so you can move at a quicker pace and not slow down and tell them every single detail. I’m pretty confident in the lineup we have now with all that experience.”

Since spring practice, Georgia’s coaches have preached the same message to the offensive linemen. This year, they’re as much the stars of Georgia’s offense as Stafford and Moreno were a year ago.

They weathered the storm to exceed expectations last season. This year, the expectations are much higher for the line, and the success of the offense rests heavily on its shoulders.

“Coach Searels has told us that it’s our team now,” Sturdivant said. “We have to make the most impact on the offense because we don’t have a Stafford. We don’t have a Knowshon. We don’t have a Mohamed Massaquoi as the senior leader on our team. We’re going to have to step up and show everybody that we can play, and we are going to will this team to wins.”

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