Thursday, August 28, 2008

How did Georgia deal with offensive line uncertainty heading into 2007?

kk'Nole fans everywhere are scared stiff about the inexperienced offensive line. I've repeatedly said that the line will be better this year than last year, since these players give a lot more effort and fit his system better.


Then I remembered that Georgia had a very inexperienced offensive line going into last year. I read Dawgsports.com regularly. Dawgsports provides some of the best SEC and Georgia analysis. I emailed T. Kyle King, the creator of DawgSports, and asked him if he would answer some questions about UGA's offensive line prospects heading into last year. Even though I am down on Georgia this year, compared to most, T. Kyle agreed. Our conversation follows. A big thanks to T. Kyle and Dawgsports. Our conversation follows. I'll add my thoughts later.


Going into the 2007 season, was the offensive line the biggest concern on the mind of Georgia fans?


Without question. Both veterans were trying out new positions, as guards Fernando Velasco and Chester Adams were moved to center and right tackle, respectively. Otherwise, it was a lot of new faces, with a new position coach leading them, to boot.


The one apparent positive to the situation was the fact that Stacy Searels, a successful and respected offensive line coach from LSU, didn’t have to break his charges of habits learned under his predecessor. Since Searels took over an inexperienced line, he was able to implement his system from the outset, which actually may have eased the coaching transition.



What was the makeup of UGA’s line on opening day 2007, experience wise?

Going into the season, did you think they fit your system well?

Were they highly touted coming out of high school?


Due to the change in position coaches as well as personnel, Bulldog Nation was in “wait and see” mode regarding the players’ suitability for the system Searels brought with him from Baton Rouge, although his record with the Bayou Bengals (who finished first in the SEC in total offense and in scoring offense in 2006) gave fans cause for hope.


The Bulldogs’ opening day lineup against Oklahoma State consisted of true freshman Trinton Sturdivant at left tackle, redshirt freshman Chris Davis at left guard, senior Fernando Velasco at center, junior Scott Haverkamp at right guard, and senior Chester Adams at right tackle.


Both players on the left side of the line were making their first career starts, although both started all 13 games at their positions last year. Velasco came in with 13 consecutive starts at split guard under his belt and started 13 more at center. Adams, who finished with 23 total starts for his career, started all but one game at tackle last season; he was relieved for the Western Carolina game by true freshman Clint Boling, who took over at right guard for the remainder of the fall. Boling’s 11 straight starts also represent his entire career on the first team.


Sturdivant came out of high school as a USA Today All-USA Second Team selection and Scout.com’s No. 18 offensive tackle in the country. Davis was an Atlanta Journal-Constitution All-State Honorable Mention and a member of Rivals.com’s Georgia Top 50. Velasco was one of the Journal-Constitution’s Georgia Top 50. Haverkamp came out of Silver Lake, Kans., as a two-time All-Mideast League selection. Adams was rated as Rivals.com’s No. 32 offensive tackle nationally and Boling was among the Journal-Constitution’s Georgia Top 50. In short, all were solid players, but only Sturdivant and Adams were highly touted nationally.



How did UGA end up so young along the offensive line to start the 2007 season?


Fortunately, it was not a situation such as that which occurred in 2003, when too many consecutive recruiting classes which neglected to include an adequate number of offensive linemen caught up to the Bulldogs. The 2007 line lacked starting experience in part because the 2006 line had a great deal of it.


The 2006 Georgia line featured 13-game starters Ken Shackleford at split tackle and Nick Jones at center, as well as 11-game starter Daniel Inman at tight tackle and four-game starter Michael Turner at tight guard and tight tackle. All four were seniors.


Georgia lost depth due to a variety of circumstances which kept some players off the field or resulted in their departure from the team, but the Bulldogs signed seven offensive linemen in 2003, two in 2004, one in 2005, six in 2006, eight in 2007, and three in 2008. Obviously, in retrospect, it would have been nice to have signed a few more linemen in the 2004 and 2005 classes (who were in their fourth and third years with the program, respectively, in 2007), but the commitment to signing linemen shown in signing six or more of them in three of the last six recruiting classes is evident.



Many in the media claim that UGA had a very good offensive line last year. I’m sure those same pundits weren’t predicting that at the beginning of the season. What are your thoughts on the 2007 Bulldogs line? What does their performance say about the players who left from 2006?


With all due respect to former Georgia offensive coordinator Neil Callaway, the lesson of the 2007 Bulldog line is that coaching matters a great deal. Stacy Searels took a group of players who had considerable talent but scant experience and molded them into a functioning unit.


I in no way wish to bash Callaway, who, by all accounts, is a good man and a good coach, but I believe the Bulldogs traded up when he got the UAB head coaching job. What the performance of the 2007 line says about such 2006 stalwarts as Inman, Jones, Shackleford, and Turner is that last year’s offensive line was better coached.



Georgia started off the season hosting Oklahoma State and South Carolina (whose defense was loaded last year before being decimated by injuries). Did the offensive line struggle early on? Why or why not? How difficult was it for them to start off against two pretty decent teams?


The first two weeks of last season proved the axiom that things are never as good as they seem and things are never as bad as they seem. Against the Cowboys, Georgia held the ball for 36:29, converted seven of 15 third downs, and generated 376 yards of total offense. Although the Bulldogs managed to outgain the Gamecocks 341-314 the following week, the Red and Black were held to 3-of-18 on third down and the South Carolina defense was in the backfield all night, blowing up plays with regularity.


While watching the Oklahoma State game, you never would have known that none of Georgia’s offensive linemen had previous starting experience at their respective positions, but the South Carolina game made their inexperience abundantly clear. Of course, the Cowboys’ strength was on offense and the Gamecocks’ strength was on defense, so it figured that the second game would have been the one that exposed the weaknesses on the Georgia offensive front. Accordingly, the Bulldogs’ struggles came early, but not immediately.



When did they finally click? Can you tie this to an event, a game, or a series of games (possibly against inferior competition)? Do you think they put it all together earlier if they had, say, two I-AA opponents to open the season against?


I don’t know that there was a single specific point in the season at which the offensive line put it together so much as there was a point in the season at which the offense as a whole put it all together. The Tennessee game (a 35-14 loss in Knoxville), which was by far the Bulldogs’ worst performance of the season and arguably their worst of the Mark Richt era, wasn’t so much a problem of inexperience as it was a lack of preparedness and intensity. The Volunteers simply were ready for everything Georgia had to offer, which was a triumph of game-planning and execution rather than a simple act of overwhelming underclassmen.


Senior leadership is a cliché, but the presence of an upperclassman in the middle of the line definitely provided stability and helped the line come together. However, the entire offense had to mature, which was not always a function of youth; the largest spark by far came from a redshirt freshman, Knowshon Moreno.


If pressed to pinpoint an instant at which the entire offense gelled, I would point to the timeout during which the booth officials reviewed a play in the Ole Miss game. At that point, the team got into a rhythm . . . literally. The music (though not the lyrics) to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” was played over the stadium loudspeakers, and, when the cameras caught Moreno and some of his teammates performing the accompanying dance on the sidelines---a dance which was being performed in the stands by the students and younger alumni, and which was taken up by some of the defensive players on the field awaiting the verdict from the booth---the energy in Sanford Stadium went to a new level and what had been a nip-and-tuck contest turned into a rout as Georgia scored the last 28 points on the way to a 45-17 blowout.


The numbers bear that out: Georgia was held in the ballpark of 130 to 150 rushing yards in each of the Red and Black’s first four games before exploding for 328 against the Rebels. After that, aside from an uncharacteristically poor effort in Knoxville in every phase of the contest, the Bulldogs tended to be more in the range of 180 to 200 yards per game on the ground.


I definitely don’t believe that facing an easier early-season slate would have caused Georgia to put it together faster. The sense of urgency that accompanied the knowledge that the team would be facing a legitimate opening opponent in Oklahoma State caused the team to become a cohesive unit sooner rather than later. My son and I were fortunate enough to be given a tour of the Georgia weight room in May 2007 and some of the players I saw working out there were wearing “Georgia v. Oklahoma State September 1, 2007” T-shirts. I would be willing to wager that none of the players are wearing “Georgia v. Georgia Southern August 30, 2008” T-shirts today.


Although there were growing pains in 2007, the low points were nothing like those experienced in 2006, in which the Bulldogs lost four games in five weeks at midseason after opening against Western Kentucky and playing UAB in the season’s second home game. Similarly rapid development was evident in the previous seasons of the Mark Richt era, in which the Red and Black went to three SEC championship games and two Sugar Bowls in 2002, 2003, and 2005 (when Georgia opened against Clemson twice and Boise State once).


Look at it this way . . . if playing inferior competition truly helped a team to improve, then why did Georgia manage 20 points and 368 yards on 66 plays against Vanderbilt yet rack up 42 points and 413 yards on 62 snaps against Florida?



T. Kyle King
Dawg Sports

1 comment:

Anthronole said...

I had commented on your previous thread discussing the OL's of the ACC and I had said I'd like to see how Wake Forest and Clemson did since they were returning nearly the same number of OL's as FSU. I guess we have our answers with Alabama thrashing Clemson and Wake Forest dismantling perrenial doormat Baylor.

Granted those are only the first games, and avoiding attrition on OL is key to a successful season. I think we should keep a close eye on how the season goes for all 3 teams.

I think the Nole's OL will be ready.