No current member of the Georgia football team has been part of the program longer than offensive lineman Dallas Lee.
Lee and quarterback Aaron Murray were early enrollees as part of the 2009 signing class, but coach Mark Richt is seeing “a different guy” in Lee in his fifth spring with the Bulldogs.
“It happens to a lot of guys that become the senior,” Richt said. “They know, ‘Now I’m a senior, this is my last year and I want it to be special.’ I’ve seen him in the offseason program, in the mat drill program, instead of just working hard and getting it done or surviving, now he’s not only trying to get better, but he’s trying to rally the guys around him to get better.”
Lee, who started every game last season at guard, said he is trying to use the knowledge he’s gained from his time at Georgia to help younger players on offense, but said that’s easier to do now that he’s healthy.
The winter before the 2012 season wasn’t fun because Lee was coming off a broken right leg that cost him the final seven games of his sophomore season.
“Last year, mat drills were miserable,” Lee said. “It was the first running I did after breaking my leg. I just got destroyed every day. This year, I was in shape and it went a lot better. When you’re in shape, it’s a lot easier to lead people and encourage younger guys. You can breathe and you’re not the guy that’s getting killed.”
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Lee has started 21 games for Georgia. He joins redshirt senior Chris Burnette (24) and senior Kenarious Gates (26) as offensive linemen with more than 20 starts in their careers.
“I feel like Dallas has had more of a presence in the locker room just because he’s been here and he’s done it so much,” receiver Chris Conley said. “He’s been more vocal to the line for sure. I’ve noticed that.”
Added Richt: “I’ve seen a new focus on him becoming a leader for us, which is what we need from him.”
The Buford High product started 12 games last season at left guard and two more at right guard when Burnette was injured.
“As far as leadership, I’m the one that knows things, I’m the one that’s been here the longest — me and Burnette,” he said. “We’re trying to share what we know with the younger guys, especially the ones that came in early (Josh Cardiello and Aulden Bynum). Trying to teach them things so that they can get up to speed.”
Burnette is sidelined this spring after labrum surgery but sophomore John Theus is slated to return to practice today after foot surgery, Richt said. Lee isn’t sure how the line might shake out with Theus’ return.
“It is going to be hard with those two guys being starters, playing as good as both of them did,” said Lee, a fifth-year senior. “When they come back, who knows how that will work out.”
Theus could slide back into his right tackle spot. That could shift Kenarious Gates back to left tackle, where Mark Beard has worked. Gates also has experience playing guard. Austin Long has been working at right guard in Burnette’s absence and David Andrews remains the center.
“Every day you’ve got to go out and earn your job,” Lee said. “It’s not like we’re not playing at a big-time school that’s playing for SEC championships. Nobody’s job is given. You’ve got to go out every day and make sure you keep your job.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said last week that Georgia has capable depth on the line, but the unit still needs to get tougher up front.
“The thing about them that made them last year is they didn’t back down, they stuck together, they kept fighting,” Bobo said. “I like that we’ve got competition there. I like that Beard’s at left tackle, Gates is at right, Austin Long is playing good at right guard. There’s some competition there. Nobody can get complacent.”