Spring practice brings shake-ups for Georgia’s offensive line

A year ago, the sorry condition of Georgia’s offensive line was enough to make coach Mark Richt, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend want to seek out professional help off the field.

“That first week between myself and Coach Bobo and Coach Friend, we needed some therapy there for a little while,” Richt said. “It started out so poorly and we were thinking, ‘Man, we are really in for a long year.’ ”

The unit turned out better than most expected for an offense that set school scoring records.

Everybody is back this spring on the line, but that doesn’t mean that Georgia will trot out the same starting lineup to open the season at Clemson on Aug. 31.

With starters John Theus and Chris Burnette out with injuries, others are getting first-team work.

Mark Beard is running as the starting left tackle and doesn’t plan to lose the spot easily.

“This is Georgia, the best player’s going to play,” Beard said. “If I keep working hard, I believe I can get that job. It’s very important to me. I want to be that guy.”

Theus will be back sometime before spring practices end, Richt said, after undergoing surgery in January to repair a broken bone in his right foot. In the meantime, Kenarious Gates has shifted from left tackle to right tackle, and Austin Long has stepped in at right guard.

“I know I have an opportunity with those guys hurt to better myself in the coaches’ eyes to push for a starting job and if not to get some serious playing time. I just want to play,” Long said.

The 6-foot-5, 302-pound Beard said he doesn’t know how the line will look when Theus returns, but wants to prove to coaches that he can be the guy at left tackle.

He said a year in the system after arriving from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College gives him a better understanding of the playbook and thinks that makes him more competitive at left tackle.

“I know they can trust me on the field,” he said.

Coaches said starting jobs were on the line during bowl practices in December, but Friend stuck with the same starting lineup of Gates at left tackle, Dallas Lee at left guard, David Andrews at center, Burnette at right guard and Theus at right tackle. Burnette is out this spring after labrum surgery.

Long’s push for snaps was set back when he suffered a broken right hand during bowl practices.

Bobo said coaches liked how Beard came on in the second half of the year, including in starts against Auburn and Georgia Southern when Burnette was sidelined.

“Beard is a very good athlete,” Richt said. “You have to have enough athleticism to play tackle. You’ve got to be able to pass protect and then you’ve got to be long enough, you’ve got to be tall enough. Sometimes guys with shorter arms can’t hardly pass pro on the edge by themselves. Then you’ve got have the knowledge and Beard is just so much farther along now than he was.”

Beard is from Adamsville, Ala., near Birmingham, but didn’t get much grief for Georgia’s 32-28 SEC championship game loss to Alabama when he was back in the state this winter.

“They’re not as mean as I thought they were going to be,” he said. “They really liked the game a whole lot. They think it was one of the greatest games of 2012. It was a good game. That’s all they said about it.”

Beard didn’t get in the title game, but went into the Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska in the second series.

“I got a lot of reps,” he said. “I think we played good when I was out there. It wasn’t a drop-off or nothing like that.”

Said Bobo: “When Mark’s on the field he definitely makes us more athletic. It’s him just being more consistent and him being someone we can trust in games. He’s looking forward to taking that next step.”

Marc Weiszer covers Georgia football for onlineathens.com. For updates from spring practices, follow him online at twitter.com/marcweiszer.

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