Georgia Bulldogs: Kenarious Gates
In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to the Bulldogs’ first team workout, this week we'll make five predictions related to the upcoming practices.
Today’s prediction: John Theus locks down the left tackle job
This fall, however, the Bulldogs want more from Theus than what he has delivered in his first two seasons, so this spring would be a good time for him to differentiate himself on the field, as well.
The rising junior became one of the highest-rated offensive line prospects that Georgia has signed under Mark Richt when Theus officially joined the Bulldogs in 2012. He became one of the few true freshman offensive linemen to ever start his first game at Georgia and emerged as a fixture at right tackle that fall, even making a couple of Freshman All-America teams.
Kenarious Gates was a nice insurance policy on the left side of the line while Theus learned the ropes, but now Gates is gone. Richt’s staff signed Theus to someday become their starting left tackle, and with no proven option at the position, now will be the time for Theus to take hold of the job.
He temporarily lost his grip on the right tackle spot last season, playing as a reserve in five of the first six games before returning to the starting lineup down the stretch. Kolton Houston, who along with Mark Beard will probably also get some looks at left tackle this spring, experienced his struggles as starting right tackle, as well.
Those three players look like offensive line coach Will Friend’s best options at tackle, though, so the Bulldogs desperately need to get more consistent play from at least two of them starting this spring.
Theus seemed like the safest bet to become an All-SEC performer this time a year ago, and even if his sophomore season wasn’t the overwhelming success he might have liked, he still has the ability to lock down the left tackle spot and perform well there.
He’ll start doing that this spring.
After covering the competitions at safety, defensive line, offensive tackle and the star position, Friday we conclude with the offensive guards -- where the Bulldogs must replace a pair of longtime starters.
Returning starters: None
Returning reserves: The good news for Georgia is that, unlike several seasons in the not-too-distant past, there is considerable depth along the line. Offensive line coach Will Friend has used a number of reserves at guard, including rising seniors Mark Beard and Watts Dantzler and sophomores Greg Pyke and Brandon Kublanow. Offensive tackles John Theus and Kolton Houston have even practiced at guard in the past.
Newcomers: Aulden Bynum and Josh Cardiello are both coming off redshirt seasons and both players are capable of playing guard. The Bulldogs also signed Isaiah Wynn -- ESPN's No. 6 guard and No. 106 overall prospect of 2014 -- who is not yet on campus.
What to watch: This competition should be wide open heading into the spring. Friend has publicly complimented each of the contenders at points, even if Burnette and Lee handled the majority of the significant snaps. We profiled Kublanow last week and mentioned that he could be a top contender after replacing an injured Lee in the Bulldogs' Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska. He doesn't have a job locked down, however. With Friend also looking to sort out his starting tackles -- the Bulldogs also lost starting left tackle Kenarious Gates, and Beard might figure into that competition -- it's entirely possible that he will shuttle players inside and out as he has done in the past. Georgia listed Kublanow and Dantzler as Lee and Burnette's backups for the bowl game, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them start the spring in the starting roles, but don't be surprised if Friend rotates several other players through those spots during the spring.
The first two installments covered the competitions at safety and defensive line. Today, let's move to the offensive tackles. Georgia lost a longtime starter in left tackle Kenarious Gates and have two part-time starters returning.
Departures: Gates was never a star, but he was reliable, closing his career starting 33 consecutive games split between guard and tackle. He was exclusively the Bulldogs' starting left tackle for the last two seasons, so Georgia has a significant hole to fill in protecting new quarterback Hutson Mason's blind side.
Returning reserves: This is where things get interesting. We know that rising juniors Xzavier Ward and Zach DeBell are tackles, and we assume that Theus and Houston will remain at the position, but position coach Will Friend doesn't hesitate to juggle rotations. Seniors Mark Beard and Watts Dantzler and redshirt freshman Aulden Bynum are each listed as guards, but all of them have the size and ability to play tackle. If Friend doesn't like the way things are shaping up -- or even if he does and simply wants to weigh all of his options -- don't be surprised if he shuffles some of these guys inside and out.
Newcomers: Bynum is the only possible tackle who redshirted last season, but the Bulldogs signed three potential tackles last month in Dyshon Sims, Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards -- none of whom will arrive on campus until the summer.
What to watch: Offensive linemen are accustomed to players at other positions getting all of the attention, but the tackle races rank among the most important position battles for the Bulldogs this spring. Friend's offensive line had an up-and-down season in 2013, but it might get off to a much better start if Theus and Houston -- or a different candidate -- lock down the tackle spots by proving they can handle the job during spring practice. Houston didn't even know if he would be able to play at this time last year thanks to a long-running NCAA eligibility dispute. He definitely looked rusty at times, particularly when trying to anticipate the snap count in noisy road venues. Now he has a season of steady playing time under his belt, and most of the other leading tackle candidates have played in big games as well. Someone simply needs to prove to Friend that he deserves the job. Otherwise, expect to see Georgia continue to rotate players in and out until Friend discovers a combination that he likes.
John Theus and Kolton Houston (offensive tackles, Jr. and Sr.)
2013 review: After starting all 14 games at right tackle and making multiple freshman All-American teams in 2012, Theus found himself in a reserve role to open his sophomore season. He started just once in the first six games while Houston held down the right tackle spot. As the season progressed, however, they flipped roles and Theus started the last seven games and Houston played as a reserve.
Why spring is important: Longtime starting left tackle Kenarious Gates was a senior last fall, so not only was the job that Theus and Houston juggled last year up for grabs, but so is Gates' old spot on the left side of the line. Considering how Xzavier Ward and Zach DeBell have yet to make much of an impact at Georgia, Theus and Houston seem like the favorites to win the starting jobs. Senior Mark Beard, who has played both guard and tackle, might also be a possibility. Nonetheless, offensive line coach Will Friend will likely look at several groups along a line that must replace three starters. Theus and Houston had their ups and downs a season ago, so they could use a strong spring to alleviate some of the uncertainty that the line carries into the upcoming practices.
Best case/worst case: Georgia fans were excited about what the future held for Theus entering his sophomore season, but he didn't make enormous strides in his second season on campus. Likewise, Houston made his long-awaited debut following a lengthy NCAA eligibility dispute and frequently looked like a player who hadn't been able to earn any game experience in his first three seasons at Georgia. Since both players seem likely to contribute as part of a rotation at minimum -- and likely as starters -- a worst-case scenario would have them playing at the same level as they did in 2013. Theus and Houston are capable of much more, however, and a consistent spring could help them nail down starting tackle jobs and solidify Friend's plans entering preseason practices.
Today we take a look at a young offensive lineman who should be in the mix to replace one of the Bulldogs' two departed starters at guard.
2013 review: As is typical for an offensive lineman who actually plays as a freshman, Kublanow got off to a quiet start. He appeared in just one of the Bulldogs' first five games -- a blowout win against North Texas -- before eventually playing his way into the rotation. He appeared in each of the Bulldogs' last eight games and was offensive line coach Will Friend's choice to replace injured senior Dallas Lee in bowl loss against Nebraska.
Why spring is important: There will be significant turnover on the line this season with Lee, right guard Chris Burnette and left tackle Kenarious Gates -- all of whom started nearly every game over the previous three seasons -- out of the picture. Kublanow and rising senior Watts Dantzler appear to be the early favorites to start at the guard spots, but Friend has no shortage of options at those positions, including Mark Beard, Greg Pyke and redshirt freshmen Josh Cardiello and Aulden Bynum. The feisty Kublanow just needs to keep doing what he's been doing and he should be part of a rotation at minimum.
Best case/worst case: Kublanow is the classic “road grader” guard, so it wouldn't be much of a surprise to see him jump into the starting lineup this season and stay there for the next three falls. Friend was clearly impressed with his potential when practice opened last season and he made it a point to work him into the lineup more and more as the season progressed. Now it might be his time. However, his spot as a starter or member of Friend's rotation could be in jeopardy if he doesn't show enough consistency this spring. It seems unlikely that he won't play a prominent role this fall, but older players might grab those spots if Kublanow struggles.
Today we continue a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. After touching on the inside linebackers on Monday, we move on to the offensive line group that must replace three starters.
4. Offensive line
Strength in numbers: Georgia finally has depth along the line that seemed to be lacking for far too long. Guards Watts Dantzler, Mark Beard and Greg Pyke could all be candidates for legitimate playing time -- and maybe even starting jobs – but reserve tackles Xzavier Ward and Zach DeBell only add to the mystery at their position, having contributed very little on game day to this point. Reserve center Hunter Long is in a similar situation since rising senior Andrews has taken essentially every significant snap over the last two seasons.
New on the scene: In guard Josh Cardiello and swingman Aulden Bynum, the Bulldogs add two candidates to the rotation after redshirting last fall. Both players participated in spring practice as early enrollees last year, although it was apparent they were unlikely to contribute on a veteran line in the fall. This year's line signees -- tackles Dyshon Sims, Jake Edwards and Kendall Baker and guard Isaiah Wynn -- are not expected on campus until summer, so they will need to have surprisingly strong August camps in order to crack Friend's rotation in the fall. Sims and Wynn, who was the No. 106 overall prospect in the ESPN 300, seem like the most probable contributors among the freshmen.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Here are five things you need to know leading up to Saturday night's game between Georgia (6-4, 4-3 SEC) and Kentucky (2-8, 0-6).
Last time for the seniors: This is it for Aaron Murray and Georgia's 27 other seniors who will play their final home game at Sanford Stadium. The group enters the Kentucky game with a four-year record of 34-17, having won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012.
Included in that group are eight players who started last Saturday's game against Auburn: Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and defensive lineman Garrison Smith.
Murray's record chase: Murray is already the only quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three seasons. He needs just 108 yards against Kentucky to make it all four seasons. Having already broken the SEC career records for passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense and completions this season, Murray can still chase down two more records before the season ends. He is 59 pass attempts behind former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzon's career total of 1,514 and needs 12 touchdowns rushing or passing to match Florida great Tim Tebow's mark for touchdown responsibility (145).
League's top tacklers meet: The top three tacklers in the SEC will be on the field tonight: Georgia's Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and Kentucky's Avery Williamson. Last week against Auburn, Wilson posted Georgia's highest single-game tackles total since 1998 when he recorded 18 stops. That pushed his SEC-leading tackles total to 110 (11 per game). After making 12 tackles against Auburn, Herrera now has 91 tackles this season. Williamson is third with 88 tackles after finishing second in the league with 135 stops last season.
Two Georgia players have led the SEC in tackles: Whit Marshall in 1995 (128) and Rennie Curran in 2009 (130).
Strangely close series: Georgia is regularly a heavy favorite -- and it is again this week, with late-week lines favoring the Bulldogs by 24 points -- but Kentucky has frequently been a tough opponent in the last decade.
Dating back to the Wildcats' upset win in 2006, Georgia is 5-2 against the Wildcats. But included in those five wins are a 42-38 win in 2008, a 19-10 victory where Georgia clinched the 2011 SEC East title after leading just 12-10 entering the final quarter, and last season's 29-24 win in Lexington. Murray torched the Wildcats' secondary for 427 yards and four touchdowns last year, but it took a late onside kick recovery by Connor Norman to disrupt the Wildcats' upset bid.
The news from Thursday that Wildcats coach Mark Stoops had suspended starting cornerback Cody Quinn, third-leading receiver Demarco Robinson and freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher for violating team rules certainly won't help Kentucky's cause.
Turnover troubles: Aside from the score, turnover margin is typically one of the most telling stats in football. Keep an eye on turnovers tonight, as both of these teams have had odd seasons in that regard. Georgia is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin (minus-eight) although it has taken care of the ball fairly effectively throughout. The Bulldogs' problem is that the defense has intercepted just four passes and recovered five fumbles. They generated 30 turnovers (17 fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions) last season.
Meanwhile, Kentucky is dead even in turnover margin this year, having 11 giveaways and 11 takeaways. The Wildcats have just one interception this season -- by linebacker Josh Forrest -- but they rank second in the SEC with 10 fumble recoveries. Their offense was second nationally for fewest turnovers, but quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw four interceptions last Saturday in a 22-6 loss to Vanderbilt.
ATHENS, Ga. -- If you're at Sanford Stadium prior to Georgia's game against Kentucky on Saturday, don't be alarmed if you witness a physical altercation between Aaron Murray and one of his fellow quarterbacks.
Should he grow too emotional during the pregame ceremony where UGA will honor its seniors before their final home game, Murray has instructed backup Faton Bauta to snap him back to reality.
“You really have to flip a switch because you want to enjoy that time with your family and get to take a picture with Coach [Mark] Richt and all that, and it is tough,” Murray said Tuesday. “But I told Faton yesterday, I said, 'If I'm being a little baby, come slap the crap out of me. Seriously, come knock me and get me going again and get me ticked off.' Because it is tough.”
Murray is one of 28 seniors who will be honored Saturday -- a group that has seen its share of ups and downs at UGA.
“It's been a pretty serious roller coaster in my time here for ups and downs for winning and losing,” senior left guard Dallas Lee said. “I don't really know, man, I'm proud of everything we've gone through the last couple years, getting as close as we did and this year fighting through all the adversity that we've had with injuries.”
Lee is one of a trio of senior starters on Georgia's offensive line along with right guard Chris Burnette and left tackle Kenarious Gates. Together, the three have started exactly 100 games in their college careers.
It's a four-year stretch that saw Georgia post its only losing record under Richt when they were freshmen, bounce back from two losses to open their sophomore season to reach the SEC championship game for the first time since 2005 and then come within a few yards of playing for a BCS championship last year, only to fall just short against eventual BCS champ Alabama in their return trip to Atlanta.
“It's a bond that a lot of people don't have with somebody,” Lee said. “I have the fortune of having it with both of them, Chris and Ken, and it's awesome, man. I consider them two of my brothers.”
Even this season has been a valuable growing experience for the group, said defensive lineman Garrison Smith, the only senior starter on the team. As in life, Smith said in football “you're going to have sunshine and you're going to have storms.”
This season, which opened with the Bulldogs ranked fifth nationally, fell apart as the Bulldogs struggled with too many injuries and defensive miscues. But given the problems that the team faced throughout the season, Smith said he remains proud of the Bulldogs' resilience -- as evidenced by their fourth-quarter comeback Saturday against Auburn, only to suffer a heartbreaking defeat in the final minute.
“It's just a year of a few little thunderstorms. It ain't no monsoons or nothing. Ain't no typhoons. Ain't none of them going on,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we've had the injury bug, man. That's tough, not just for this season, for them players that's hurt. That's what's most important. No player wants to deal with injuries and my heart is out for them guys. ... But at the end of the day, I'm proud of everybody. I'm proud of this team and how they've fought. I don't have no complaints.”
Smith might change his tune a bit if the Bulldogs lose to Kentucky on Saturday, however. That's what happened on senior night in 2009, when receiver Rantavious Wooten caught the first two touchdown passes of his career but saw the Wildcats rally for a 34-27 victory.
Wooten shared that situation with some of his younger teammates this week.
“I was telling the guys for a little extra motivation that it was the same situation my freshman year as it was now,” Wooten said. “Game at night, Kentucky, senior night. We started off good and Kentucky came back and pulled it off. Hell of a game and ended up beating us. This right here is extra motivation. Records don't mean anything. Come out and just prepare like you're playing Alabama.”
Of course, the 2-8 Wildcats aren't close to being in top-ranked Alabama's class. As 24-point underdogs on Saturday, they shouldn't be close to Georgia's, either.
So long as the Bulldogs don't come out of the pregame ceremony with Richt and their families as emotional wrecks, they should be able to take care of business -- and Burnette does not expect emotion to be a problem.
“I feel like it's going to give us energy, honestly. For me it is at least, just understanding it's the last time I get to play between the hedges,” Burnette said. “I've wanted to play on that field and in that stadium since I was like 10 years old, so for it to be the last shot, the last go-round, it's going to be something special.”
Following Saturday's date with Kentucky -- the final game at Sanford Stadium this season -- the Bulldogs will look entirely different on offense the next time they take the field before a home crowd. And many of the players who will take over for the likes of Aaron Murray and his fellow seniors next fall also filled their spots in the fourth quarter of Georgia's 45-6 win over the Mountaineers two weekends ago.
Assuming he wins the quarterback job, Mason will be in a convenient position next season. Georgia loses seven seniors -- Murray, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee -- who started on offense against Auburn. And yet the returning skill-position talent surrounding the Bulldogs' next quarterback will be as impressive as that of nearly any offense in the country.
Not only will tailback Todd Gurley return for his junior season, the Bulldogs expect to get receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall back from season-ending knee injuries that crippled the offense at points this fall. That's in addition to other returning weapons like receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph, tight end Jay Rome and tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas and 2014 commitments Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among ESPN's top eight prospects at running back.
Not a bad situation for a first-time starting quarterback who must replace the most distinguished passer in SEC history.
“We've got a lot of weapons,” redshirt freshman receiver Blake Tibbs said. “And Hutson, he don't care who's open. If they put a dog in a helmet and some equipment out there, if he was open, Hutson would throw it to him. That's one thing about Hutson: He don't care. If you're open, he's going to trust you to make the play and he's going to keep throwing to you.”
Mason certainly proved that in his lone opportunity for significant playing time this season. He hit his first eight pass attempts, connecting with the likes of Rumph, Green, freshman Reggie Davis and walk-on Kenneth Towns on his first drive. Then came further completions to Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Douglas and Rumph again before his first incomplete pass.
The common bond there? Those are mostly the players with whom Mason has regularly worked on the Bulldogs' second-team offense, so chemistry was not an issue when they hit the field.
“That group's kind of been playing together -- besides Rumph -- for a long time and a lot of when our twos go against the ones, they always seem to do well and I think there's a chemistry between those guys kind of like Aaron and Bennett and other guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.
There's a long time between now and the reserves' time to shine. Heck, there are three games remaining this season.
That means there is plenty of time for the stars in waiting to continue to develop before the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson on Aug. 30 -- which is exactly the mentality Rumph says he's developing.
“That's what young players have got to understand,” said Rumph, who has six catches in the last three games after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring ailment. “This is your job, so every time you go to school or go to practice, you've got to work to get better. That's all I'm trying to do is keep adding stuff to my game. I've got the feel for the game, I know what I'm capable of. I'm just trying to keep adding stuff to my game.”
Mason echoed those thoughts, pointing out that while even coach Mark Richt has declared Mason as the frontrunner to win the job next season, he still must make good use of this opportunity and not just assume the job is his from the get-go.
He has the opportunity to work with what could be an extremely productive offense next season -- if he stakes a claim on the job.
“I'm not going to be na´ve. I hear about that stuff and I read some of it and stuff like that. I've always been the first to say that I believe they're just being nice,” Mason said. “I believe that I've done a good job of performing when my opportunity comes, but I've never stepped on the field in front of 90,000 and like I was saying earlier, that's different from playing in practice.
“So I enjoy the comments and I enjoy the people that have faith in me, but really myself, I just take it day-by-day and say, 'You know what, what have I proven?' because in reality I haven't proven a lot. So when that opportunity comes, hopefully I'll show up.”
Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.
But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.
The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.
“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”
There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.
The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.
Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.
In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.
The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.
“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.
Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.
It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.
That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.
“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”
When LSU meets Georgia in Athens on Saturday, Ego Ferguson expects a slugfest up front.
LSU's junior defensive tackle knows playing with the big uglies in the SEC means constant fights each week, but this one feels different. Georgia has experience and comfort, while LSU walks in with inexperience and hunger.
The sledgehammer that hits hardest could pave the way to a 2-0 conference start.
"It's like watching a heavyweight fight. It's like [Muhammad] Ali and [George] Foreman go at it," Ferguson said. "It's going to be a battle all day. The way we look at it, we're coming in to prove a point that we can still do it on the defensive line. It's going to be a great challenge, but we're going to be at our best."
It's been nearly 39 years since Ali claimed his second heavyweight title, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round of the historic "Rumble in the Jungle" in Kinshasa, Zaire. It was a fight for the ages and Ferguson, who is second on LSU's team with 21 tackles and has 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, expects a dogfight to break out up front inside Sanford Stadium.
He has every reason to think this will be quite the bout between these two lines. Georgia returned all five offensive line starters this season and added a top-end piece to the starting lineup with the return of Kolton Houston. After giving up four sacks in the season-opening loss to Clemson, Georgia's line has allowed just two sacks since then and the Bulldogs are second in the SEC in offense, averaging 574 yards per game and 7.8 yards per play.
Tight end Arthur Lynch says a reason for the line's turnaround has been comfort. Communication and nerves hurt this line in a hostile environment at Clemson, but the line's composure has improved greatly in the last two games. It started in the dramatic, 41-30 win over South Carolina, when the line surrendered two sacks and 39 negative yards. It continued with Georgia giving up no sacks and just four negative rushing yards in the blowout of North Texas.
The line would like to clean up the negative rushing yards in big games -- there were 72 combined against Clemson and South Carolina -- but with the mistakes decreasing every week, Lynch has high hopes for Saturday.
"It all starts up front; that's the nature of it," Lynch said. "No matter what you think or how you think football is played, the battle is one up front on the offensive or defensive side of the ball. For us to have some confidence in our offensive line and to know that they get better each week, as it continues to grow knowing the stuff that we have built around it, the sky is the limit for us as an offense."
The Tigers have been impressive on defense, allowing 310 yards per game, and 5.5 of LSU's seven sacks have come from linemen. But they've had some hiccups. They let teams such as TCU and Auburn hang around with 38 combined second-half points. LSU gave up a season-high 213 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Auburn.
It's a bit of a concern, but defensive tackle Anthony Johnson said the defensive line embraces the challenge Saturday, trying to stop Georgia's high-powered passing and rushing attacks.
"Our linebackers felt it was their job to [put pressure on Georgia's offense], but honestly, it starts up front," Johnson said. "We have to set the line of scrimmage and get everything together. If we play like we're supposed to play, it'll be a great day for us."
So how does LSU beat a line that's seemingly getting better every week? Johnson, who has 2.5 tackles for loss this year, says it starts inside. Georgia's line is clicking, but Johnson thinks he knows what the Tigers can exploit Saturday.
"Honestly, we've seen guys beat them on the inside," he said. "We've watched a lot of film on Georgia and they can be beaten. There's nobody that's invincible. We just have to work hard and play our technique."
Winning the battle inside would do wonders for LSU's pass rush, which has to improve if the Tigers are going to stop Georgia. LSU hasn't had the same production as years past, but that past aggression must be present Saturday. However, it won't be easy with Houston and Kenarious Gates manning the outside.
You have to respect Johnson's confidence, especially considering the fact that LSU's defensive line lost four NFL draft picks, but you also have to respect what Georgia's line has done. It's helped engineer one of the nation's best running duos in Todd Gurley (377 yards) and Keith Marshall (117). Quarterback Aaron Murray also is inching closer to more Georgia and SEC records with his 1,040 yards and seven touchdowns.
"Are we the most physically imposing bunch of guys up front? We're not," Georgia coach Mark Richt said, "but we have a bunch of guys collectively that when they get on the same page and they get after it, we've been able to create enough space for our backs and enough time for our quarterback to succeed."
It should be quite the rumble between the hedges.
Gates appeared to injure his right ankle, opening the door for Mark Beard to take over at left tackle in the second half of the Bulldogs' 41-30 victory. Marshall jogged on the sideline and rode a stationary bike behind the Georgia bench after apparently injuring his left knee, but did not touch the ball again after a 10-yard run late in the third quarter.
“Anybody who was injured, including those two, any kind of X-rays or whatever that we looked at, everybody's fine. They all came out negative,” Richt said on his Sunday evening teleconference. “We're expecting everybody to be able to play in our next ballgame.”
Richt also expects receiver Jonathon Rumph to be available for the first time following a hamstring injury that kept him out of the first two games.
“We hope he's 100 percent,” Richt said. “He was close. He practiced some, he just couldn't cut it loose. He couldn't go full speed and we didn't want him to push it, and so now I can't imagine him not being able to go full speed by the time we play this next game.”
Georgia will also get a player back from suspension, as place-kicker Marshall Morgan's two-game punishment for an offseason arrest is now complete. Although Patrick Beless is a perfect 10-for-10 on PATs and 2-for-2 on field goals -- not counting a field-goal try against Clemson where a high snap prevented him from attempting a kick -- Richt said Morgan will resume his kicking duties against North Texas.
“Marshall has made a mistake, Marshall has been disciplined for that and I'm not going to continue to punish him,” Richt said. “And so right now, I'm expecting Marshall to come in and take over the kicking duties, but it's good to know that Patrick is capable in big games and can come in in a pinch if we need to.”
Georgia's coach is not sure when to expect junior college transfers Shaquille Fluker and Kennar Johnson to jump into the mix in the Bulldogs' depth-deprived secondary. Neither player has gotten into a game yet, largely because of injury setbacks during preseason practice.
“Right this minute, I don't see them jumping in the game anytime soon,” Richt said. “But as the season goes on and their careers go on, we're happy with their talent base, their ability. They just kind of got behind the 8-ball with reps because of some injuries and some missing of practice time.”
With Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina’s fearsome defensive front on deck Saturday, that is not a particularly encouraging sign for the Bulldogs. But Georgia’s linemen realize they can’t allow themselves to think that way.
Such a philosophy might not be particularly useful for Georgia’s coaching staff, which knows it must frequently commit more than one blocker to Clowney -- a player widely viewed as one of the top pro prospects in college football.
Clowney got off to an unimpressive start in last Thursday’s win against North Carolina, but he has made his impression felt in two games against Georgia to date.
As a freshman in 2011, he twice sacked Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray and forced Murray into a fumble that teammate Melvin Ingram recovered for the win-clinching touchdown late in a 45-42 South Carolina victory. Last season, Clowney had two tackles for a loss and a sack as the Gamecocks harassed Murray into the lowest single-game QBR (8.4, when his season average was 78.2, 13th-best in the nation) of his college career.
“Whatever happened last year is last year,” said Georgia’s Kenarious Gates, who struggled mightily against Clowney a season ago. “The thing about me is I learned to move on and focus on what’s ahead of me.”
What’s ahead is a chance for redemption, not just for Gates, but for an entire offensive line that turned in an embarrassing effort in last season’s 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. But it’s unclear who will line up on the edge to defend against Clowney, Chaz Sutton and South Carolina’s other pass rushers.
Friend experimented with several lineups in Saturday’s opener, to mixed results at best. While Georgia generated more first downs, rushing yards and passing yards, averaged more yards per play and led in time of possession, the line also committed a handful of costly penalties and surrendered four sacks -- more than in any game last year except one, when they allowed five to Ole Miss.
Three of those sacks came in the second quarter, when Clemson’s defense put the clamps on a Georgia offense that moved the ball at will early in the game. Tigers defensive end Vic Beasley zipped around flailing left tackle Gates on one third-down rush to nearly decapitate Murray with a vicious blind-side blow that forced a punt.
On Georgia’s next possession, Stephone Anthony got around right tackle Houston and knocked the ball away from Murray at the Bulldogs’ 20-yard line, forcing a fumble that Clemson’s Spencer Shuey recovered at the 16 to set up a short touchdown drive.
And on the final possession of the first half, Tavaris Barnes blew past Houston -- now playing left tackle -- to take down Murray near midfield and short-circuit Georgia’s attempt to drive for the go-ahead points just before halftime.
Clemson added one more sack on Georgia’s first possession of the second half and the Bulldogs otherwise kept Murray upright. Some key damage had already been done, however, and Georgia’s offense never regained its early momentum.
“We definitely had our ups and downs, but at the end of the day it’s a loss and Aaron got his jersey dirty,” Houston said.
Gates lost weight in the offseason, partially out of a desire to be quicker on his feet so he could more easily contend with speed rushers like Beasley and Clowney.
“I felt like that would make me a better player -- lighter on my feet and quicker and it’s lighter on my knees, as well,” Gates said last week. “I feel like doing it for me, doing it for the team, it would make me a more athletic player. I want to be that guy, and overall it’s been helpful.”
Clowney presents the biggest challenge of the season for Georgia’s pass protectors, though, and it seems unlikely that Friend and Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will make one player responsible for the Gamecocks star. Count on Georgia to devote tight ends and running backs to Clowney’s side, as well, to assist the tackles against the player who totaled 23.5 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks a season ago.
And as Bulldogs coach Mark Richt pointed out, the Bulldogs will also enjoy the benefit of playing at home, unlike in Saturday’s loss. Georgia relied on silent snap counts because of the noise present in Death Valley, but the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium will allow the Bulldogs to vary their cadences and prevent Clowney and company from jumping the snap count so easily.
“I think the times we got beat in my opinion, we just got beat off the snap,” Richt said. “We’ll have our cadence next week and that will help. If we were at South Carolina, it would be a little bit tougher, but I think it will help when we get off on the cadence.”
But it was quickly evident that the Bulldogs’ offensive line coach seems ready to follow through on using a handful of players who were not regulars in 2012 -- with a number of substitutions during team running drills showing off depth that Georgia has not enjoyed along the line in some time.
“[It’s the best in my career] by far. Not even close,” said fifth-year senior right guard Chris Burnette, who returned to the starting lineup on Thursday after missing spring practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. “I remember there was one time, probably going into , where we were getting really thin on numbers and a lot of guys had to crosstrain and play first and second team or second and third team, all that kind of stuff. So it’s good to finally have a good amount of numbers, and not just have numbers, but guys who can actually contribute.”
When the Bulldogs opened Thursday’s practice, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee manned the left tackle and guard spots, respectively, with David Andrews lined up at center. On the right side were All-SEC pick Burnette and tackle John Theus, who was listed behind Xzavier Ward on the team’s summer depth chart despite having started every game last year as a true freshman.
Ward worked with the starting unit before long, as offensive coordinator Mike Bobo recently predicted would happen, and a number of players filtered onto the line as the drill continued -- including guards Kolton Houston and Greg Pyke and tackle Mark Beard.
For now, Houston -- recently reinstated by the NCAA after a three-year battle to regain his eligibility -- will practice at left guard, although that position does not appear to be set in stone.
“I don’t know if Coach Friend has totally nailed down where everybody is going to be, but starting out he’ll be at the left guard position,” Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said before practice. “He’s going to cross train and he’ll know the right guard position. He’s athletic enough to play tackle, as well. We don’t want to give him too much, but day one he’s sitting at No. 2 left guard.”
The one notable absence was guard Austin Long, whose academic status remains in question, but otherwise the key linemen who appeared set to play roles in Friend’s rotation earned early opportunities on Thursday.
Over the next few weeks of camp, Friend and company will attempt to nail down whether that returning lineup will remain intact and which of the reserves to include in their plans.
“Who the best five are, that’s what we’ve got to decide,” Bobo said.
For the first time in years, however, Georgia’s offensive line should have more than just a starting five and few reliable alternatives. For a player such as Burnette, who was around in much leaner times, the line’s depth difference is easily detectable.
“I think it’s good to have so many guys who can contribute in so many different ways,” Burnette said. “Regardless of what the final lineup ends up being, I feel like we’re going to have the five best guys, literally, on the field that help us win games. I’m just excited to see how it all pans out and to see how dudes compete this fall camp and leading into the season.”
2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first, SEC East)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 2
Top returners: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OL Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, ILB Amarlo Herrera
Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, S Shawn Williams, S Bacarri Rambo, NG John Jenkins, CB Sanders Commings, WR Tavarres King
2012 statistical leaders (* - returner)
Rushing: Gurley * (1,385 yards)
Passing: Murray * (3,893 yards)
Receiving: King (950 yards)
Tackles: Alec Ogletree (111)
Sacks: Jones (14.5)
Interceptions: Swann * (4)
1. Safety starters: With 2011 All-Americans Rambo and Williams completing their college careers, the Bulldogs entered the spring with two big holes at safety. It appears sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons and January enrollee Tray Matthews have all but claimed the starting positions, however. Harvey-Clemons was named the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP of spring practice, and Matthews generated the most buzz of anyone this spring with his ability to deliver crushing hits. Georgia’s inexperience along the back end of the defense is not ideal, but the two youngsters could become a pleasant surprise.
The top five freshmen in the SEC
7:47 2nd Qtr South Alabama 7 Bowling Green 14 Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38
6:00 PM ET Marshall Northern Illinois 9:30 PM ET Navy San Diego State
12:00 PM ET Central Michigan Western Kentucky 8:00 PM ET Fresno State Rice
1:00 PM ET Illinois Louisiana Tech 4:30 PM ET Rutgers North Carolina 8:00 PM ET North Carolina State UCF
1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Virginia Tech 2:00 PM ET 15 Arizona State Duke 3:30 PM ET Miami (FL) South Carolina 4:30 PM ET Boston College Penn State 8:00 PM ET Nebraska 24 USC
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State