ATHENS - There's at least one person who doesn't appear very worried about the state of Georgia's offensive line: Mark Richt.
Yes, starting jobs are still up in the air, and the overall talent level is in question. But in the mind of Georgia's head coach, the front five doesn't need to be dominant in order to be successful this season.
It just needs to be good enough to let the skill position players do their thing.
“I’ve coached offensive football a long time," Richt said last week. "I don’t want to make anybody mad at Florida State, but we didn’t have dominating offensive lines, but we had some great skill people that were able to make some great plays. If you have a bunch of linemen that know what to do, and can stay coordinated and get their hat on the right guy, and fight like mad, you can neutralize a defender for long enough for a great skill guy to get on by, or get the ball off, whatever it might be.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Telegraph
“I mean I’d rather have five guys that are in sync, that are a little above average, than three of them that are superstars and two guys that can’t play. You’re not gonna get it done. Because all it takes is one guy to blow it, and you’ve got a negative-yardage play. It can be very frustrating.”
The talent level of Georgia's skill position players isn't in much question: Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley could be Heisman candidates, receiver Malcolm Mitchell will be an all-SEC candidate, and the receiver and tight end spots are deep.
So what’s the talent base on this Georgia offensive line, Richt was asked?
“These guys, they’re very good players, but I just don’t know – before it’s over one or two might be a high (draft) pick," he said. "But I think they’re the kind of guys that can get the job done. They’ve done a nice job. Coach Friend has done a nice job.”
That was a reference to Will Friend, now entering his third year as the team's offensive line coach. This year Friend has all his starters back, along with the top reserves. And yet even in the final week of spring practice he was flipping first- and second-teamers, sending a message to expected starters who hadn't played up to par.
Two spots are basically set: junior David Andrews at center, senior Chris Burnette at right guard. Sophomore John Theus, perhaps the most talented member of the line, is likely to start at either left or right tackle. Senior Kenarious Gates figures to be one of the tackle or guard spots.
When asked if the line situation was as chaotic as Friend portrayed, Richt of course said yes, but put it in more positive terms: Richt pointed out that so many players with experience are returning (unlike last year), and that redshirt sophomore Xzavier Ward got healthy and was added to the mix.
“I mean he’s lining up at No. 1 right tackle right now,” Richt said, adding that it wasn't a motivational move. “It’s not trying to scare anybody, it’s the way we saw it.”
Senior Austin Long and redshirt freshman Greg Pyke have also improved, according to Richt.
“I can see eight, nine guys, maybe even 10 – I mean Watts (Dantzler) is coming – I think we’ve got more guys that are able to play in our league,” Richt said. “Again, I still don’t say we have this massive, dominating front, but we’ve got a lot of guys that can function and play well. So there is some true competition there.”