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July 27, 2007
The Georgia Bulldogs must build on one of them.
New offensive line coach Stacy Searels came to Georgia in January from LSU. Searels developed three All-Americans, including Rimington Award-winning center Ben Wilkerson, while with the Tigers.
Searels made an immediate impression when he arrived in Athens.
"Stacy is a tremendous coach," Georgia coach Mark Richt said Friday morning. "He's already come in and infused a lot of new ideas. I think our guys are really taking to him."
Searels has taken on the major task of assembling an SEC-caliber offensive line from a collection of freshmen, junior college transfers and a couple of holdovers who are changing positions.
If the season-opener against Oklahoma State were played today, true freshman tackle Trinton Sturdivant, redshirt freshman guard Chris Davis and junior college transfer guard Scott Haverkamp would start. Redshirt freshman Justin Anderson could also find his way into the mix.
"We only had six scholarship linemen after the (2006) season ended for a lot of different reasons," Richt said. "Thankfully, we were able to bring in five kids at midyear ? two junior college linemen, two prep school linemen and a true freshman. Because they were here in the spring, it gave the guys a chance to compete."
Still, Richt acknowledged that's not a best-case scenario for a team needing to protect emerging quarterback Matthew Stafford. Georgia also needs to upgrade its running game. If the Bulldogs can't do that, they likely won't fare any better than a predicted third place finish in the SEC East.
"You know, that more than anything else is probably why people aren't giving us much of a chance," Richt said. "But I think Coach Searels has done a great job of bringing them together to this point.
"I think (offensive coordinator) Mike Bobo has a good sense of understanding you can't do anything you want offensively and expect these guys to hold up. We're going to have to be a little bit careful what we do with this bunch until they get their feet wet."
Caution on offense typically equates to more running, which doesn't seem to play to the Bulldogs' strength.
Surprisingly, Georgia ? the program that produced Herschel Walker, Robert Edwards, Terrell Davis, Garrison Hearst, Olandis Gary and Rodney Hampton ? hasn't had a 1,000-yard running back since Musa Smith five seasons ago. South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the only SEC schools with a longer span without a 1,000-yard rusher.
Some of that can be explained because of Richt's diplomatic use of running backs. It could be argued the Bulldogs haven't given one back enough carries to reach 1,000 yards.
But that doesn't explain why Georgia's rushing offense ranked just 71st in the nation last season, averaging fewer than 4 yards per carry. The Bulldogs were held to fewer than 100 yards rushing in four games last season, yet managed to win three of them.
They don't want to push their luck, though.
"We obviously want to run the ball and set up the pass," Velasco said. "As offensive linemen we want to run. We haven't run extremely well, but we haven't been poor, either. We want to pick it up."
Picking up the running game is obviously a high priority, but picking up the opposing pass rush is more important.
Stafford began to flourish late last year and was solid in season-closing victories over Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
Now a seasoned sophomore, Stafford's role in the offense will be even greater.
"Now he's had the experience of knowing what it's like to play in a pressure-packed ballgame, many of them," Richt said. "I hope he's learned the value of protecting the football.
"He's learned that if you hang on to that thing, you don't throw it to the other team, you have a chance to win. In the five-game stint where we lost four out of five, I think we turned it over 14 times to the opponents' seven times.
"The last three ballgames, against great football teams, we didn't turn the ball over. When we won that turnover ratio, we won the game."
A protected quarterback commits fewer turnovers, and that requires a solid line.
The Bulldogs are hoping they can build one.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.