For all the moving parts brought about by the slew of injuries this season at the skill positions for Georgia, the Bulldogs’ offensive line was relatively stable.
Will Friend used just three different starting combinations on his line.
Left tackle Kenarious Gates, center David Andrews and right guard Chris Burnette started every game. Left guard Dallas Lee started all but one game. Even right tackle became more settled with John Theus starting for the last six games, with Kolton Houston rotating in behind him.
Change, though, is coming.
Seniors Gates, Burnette and Lee will be departing after the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against Nebraska.
“I have a lot of faith in the guys, the ability to replace some of the guys that we lose,” Theus said. “I think people will question just because there will be some new faces, but I know us as a line have faith in the guys who will be stepping up. … We might surprise a few people next year.”
Theus said coaches haven’t toyed with different line combinations during bowl practices like they might in the spring.
“We’re kind of still in that 2013 mode,” said Theus, who will be a junior next season.
The left side of the line will undergo the most change.
Theus, Houston or rising senior Mark Beard could replace Gates at the pivotal left tackle spot, with either Theus or Houston manning right tackle. Theus, the former five-star recruit, worked at left tackle some last spring.
Houston is finishing his first college season after being ruled eligible this summer following a three-year fight with the NCAA for testing positive for an anabolic steroid that Georgia said was administered unknowingly while he was suffering from a shoulder injury in high school.
“I definitely have a lot of improvement to go,” Houston said. “I’m not where I want to be. I want to be a top-notch player. … Probably the biggest thing I need to work on is the pass game on the road. That’s definitely the hardest thing, especially at tackle. It’s loud. You can’t really hear the snap cadence so you’re just trying to time the ball off and just the pass rush of the speed guys. So we’ll have to work on that.”
Burnette expects Watts Dantzler, also a rising senior, to step in at right guard for him.
“This upcoming season he’s going to have a chance to really play a lot, start I think,” Burnette said. “I don’t have a depth chart, I don’t decide who plays, but I feel like he’ll probably be a starter and do a great job.”
Said Houston: “These past couple of weeks he’s had some really good practices and he’s coming along really well, so I definitely think he’s going to be ready.”
Brandon Kublanow, who got increased playing time as a freshman, could replace Lee at left guard.
“I’m just excited to see what he has in store for the next few years,” Burnette said.
“The kid is going to be a heck of a player,” Theus said. “He showed it this year.”
Redshirt freshman guard Greg Pyke and redshirt sophomore tackle Zach DeBell have shown improvement this fall, Friend said. Tackle Xzavier Ward, who has been bothered by knee injuries, is a wild card. Center Hunter Long and guard/center Josh Cardiello and guard Aulden Bynum, who redshirted this year as freshmen, will also be in the mix.
“Once you get more comfortable with the offense, too, you start playing a lot faster and that’s what they’ll start doing,” Andrews said. “I’m excited to see what they can do this spring.”
With so many close games, the backups haven’t played as much as Friend would have liked.
“It’s kind of a shame that we haven’t had a chance to play some of the guys where we needed,” Friend said near the end of the regular season. “There’s been times where we’ve kind of forced them (into games) to where if they were to be called on, they’d at least have some game action.”
No Georgia offensive linemen made The Associated Press or coaches All-SEC team this year, but the Bulldogs ranked fifth in the conference for fewest sacks allowed with 18 and were part of an offense that averaged 489.8 yards per game despite the injuries.
“There were some moments where we got whipped individually, but game in and game out they came to play, they fought hard, they knew what to do,” coach Mark Richt said. “They created the space and the time that the quarterback needed and they created the space the backs needed to get started. I’m proud of the job they’ve done.”