September 26, 2012

O-line making strides?

Compared to where it started in the spring to where they are now, Georgia head coach Mark Richt concedes that his offensive line has progressed even further than perhaps even he first thought it would.

Apparently, that's saying a lot.

"I know Coach (Will) Friend, Coach (Mike) Bobo and myself and probably every other offensive coach was trying not to hang our heads, thinking we have some problems, we have some things we have to iron out," Richt said. "To their credit they have worked their tails off. The linemen knew we had some issues. All summer long they decided as a group to get up at the crack of dawn and be the first ones there in the weight room. They worked extremely hard with our strength staff. Going against the defensive front they were going against day after day after day they just had to get better or get embarrassed. They got better."

Quarterback Aaron Murray recalls those early days well.

"It was a little rocky, but at the end of the spring, their progress to Day 15 was probably the greatest thing I've ever seen," Murray said. "They did a great job going against Big Jenks (John Jenkins), Abry (Jones), Jarvis (Jones), Kwame (Geathers) and Cornelius (Washington) who are some pretty talented guys. Their improvement was really pretty phenomenal."

Statistically speaking, Georgia's young offensive line must be doing something right.

The fifth-ranked Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0) enter Saturday's 3:30 contest against Tennessee (3-1, 0-1) ranked first in both scoring offense (47.4 points per game) and total offense (530 yards per game).

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin needed no convincing after seeing his team throttled by the Bulldogs 48-3 last Saturday night.

"I've been doing this for almost 20 years now," Franklin said during Wednesday's SEC teleconference. "I thought that was as impressive of an offense as I've seen in terms of a veteran quarterback, physical offensive line, physical running backs and speed on the perimeter as well as size."

Georgia has also done a better-than-average job when it comes to protecting Murray. The Bulldogs have allowed just six sacks in four games, the third fewest in the SEC.

But Friend remains a hard man to please.

"We've got a long way to go. They're playing hard right now and they played hard in the spring. From Day 1 our goal has been to get better every day," he said. "The last two or three weeks they've played harder, so that's been a plus. We didn't play good enough Saturday like we wanted; we've got some skill players who are making some plays so we've got to get a little bit better."

Still, Georgia's young line appears to be growing up fast.

Friend said he's been pleased with sophomore center David Andrews, who thus far has proven to be a more than adequate replacement for four-year starter Ben Jones.

Guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette have probably been the most consistent performers, while Kenarious Gates and Mark Beard together appear to have fortified left tackle. Meanwhile, freshman John Theus has rebounded from a difficult game at Missouri to post solid back-to-back outings against FAU and Vanderbilt, grading out the highest he's had all year.

"It's a testament of those guys working hard, fighting through. We've got five guys playing well together. Theus is definitely a good addition for us and Mark Beard coming in early really helped him because if he wouldn't have come in early, he wouldn't be where he is today," Bobo said. "He's just night and day where he is now compared to where he was in the spring. There's still a lot we can get better at, but this is a smart group which understands what we want to do offensively and they're physically tough, getting after it. We've still got to get stronger and that will come to time."

But so far, so good.

After not allowing a sack against the Commodores, Murray treated the entire offensive line to ice cream at a local Ben & Jerry's, a reward Gates joked might be just the ticket to keep the quarterback up right the rest of the year.

"Every Friday at the team dinner he'll say 'Ice Cream Sunday' and I'm like 'Yesss,' Gates joked. "When you have that ice cream in the back of your head, you make sure you get him good protection and make sure he's got time to get the ball off."

With the meat of the SEC schedule and a trip to Atlanta likely to be determined within the next month, Richt just hopes the line is peaking at just the right time.

"I don't know if they are the best offensive line in America, but they sure have made a lot of improvement, and they are playing well. They are playing well together," he said. "If you have five guys who know who to hit and they'll get after you, they'll fight hard, they'll play hard, and it gives you a chance. That's kind of what's going on right now. We've had very few missed assignments, and they are playing together well, they are communicating well."