University of Georgia

Offensive line a strength for Bulldogs

HOOVER, Ala. -- The SEC has been labeled a conference littered with speed. It has also enjoyed a storied past in which defense has played a huge part in defining the success of the conference.

More and more, however, the realization that games are won and lost in the trenches has risen to the forefront of thought. Many coaches at SEC Media Days mentioned victories along the offensive and defensive lines as of paramount importance. Florida head coach Jim McElwain and Bret Bielema at Arkansas specifically pointed toward the big men up front.

If a solid, even great, offensive line can be used as a precursor to title contention, the Georgia Bulldogs start the 2015 campaign in good shape.

The team must find a way to replace offensive MVP David Andrews at center, but outside of that hole, the Bulldogs return four starters from last year’s squad and have built depth along the offensive line unlike any that has been seen in Athens since possibly the Bulldogs’ 2005 journey that brought an SEC championship to the school.

“David was a great leader for us. He was huge for us,” starting left tackle John Theus said. “But returning four out of five on the offensive line is big. Isaiah Wynn has stepped up and is doing really well, Hunter Long, as well. So having those guys, having that experience definitely gives you a little bit of an edge and a confidence going into the season. I think as a group, for us, we hold each other to high expectations and we challenge each other and that’s what makes us better.”

Offseason preparations haven’t been based on learning an offensive system, or teaching a new ­position to a player or players, said Theus. Because the unit is comprised of returning players, and since the Georgia offense will look remarkably similar to last season -- a note head coach Mark Richt talked about with members of the local media prior to taking the stage in Hoover -- the offensive linemen have been able to work on fundamentals, and they’ve been able to make strides and advances that typically aren’t available to groups that have to gel first and then learn.

“The guys are coming on without missing a step,” Theus said. “We’re able to take that next step without having to backtrack. There is some backtracking when we teach the young guys stuff, but through that, we learn some things ourselves. We’re able to coach each other up, and everybody along the offensive line is pretty coachable. We give each other tips and talk about schemes.

“Having the guys with experience talk about different plays against different teams and techniques, it’s definitely an advantage that we have.”

The Bulldogs finished fifth in the SEC with only 17 sacks allowed. No team threw fewer interceptions (six) than Georgia, in part because quarterback Hutson Mason wasn’t pressured as much as other SEC passers.

Behind Georgia’s line, running backs averaged 257.9 yards per game on the ground, the highest output in the SEC. Both Nick Chubb (7.06) and Todd Gurley (7.41) averaged more than seven yards per carry, as well.

There’s still the matter of determining who will play quarterback for the Bulldogs in 2015, and who will snap the ball. Richt said the competition is wide open for both positions. But both will benefit from many collective years of experience from the four returning starters.