Georgia Bulldogs: Will Friend
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.
At his introductory press conference in Athens on Wednesday, Pruitt recalled his first meeting with Bulldogs coach Mark Richt in 2003, when the then-high school coach in Fort Payne, Ala., brought some of his players to a camp at UGA.
Of course, it helped that Pruitt's close friend and college roommate at Alabama, Will Friend, is Georgia's offensive line coach. So over the course of one of their regular chit-chats, Friend naturally reached out to his friend -- whose suffocating Florida State defense just served as a leading factor in the Seminoles' BCS National Championship run -- when defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left Richt's staff to take the same position at Louisville.
Less than two days later, Pruitt became the newest member of the Georgia staff.
“This is the University of Georgia -- who wouldn’t be interested in this job?” Pruitt asked. “It’s absolutely one of the premier jobs in college football, and the opportunity to work with Coach Richt is something I just couldn’t turn down.”
Richt joked that divine intervention might have been a factor in such a quick hire. Whatever influenced the decision, Richt has hired a coach whose star quickly rose within the profession.
A former defensive back at Alabama, Pruitt coached the secondary for three seasons with Nick Saban's Crimson Tide and helped them claim back-to-back BCS titles in 2011 and 2012. He then moved to Florida State, where in his one season as defensive coordinator the Seminoles ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points per game) and third in total defense (281.4 yards per game) and won a national title.
Georgia will stick with its base 3-4 scheme, although Pruitt emphasized that the Bulldogs will be able to play multiple styles based on opponents' schemes. The main point he emphasized in his introductory meeting with the team was that he plans to keep things simple in order for the Bulldogs to play fast on defense.
“He also said that we’re going to be simple enough to where guys can go and play some football, and he said if we can’t execute it we’re not going to call it,” Richt said. “I think that gave those guys some peace that it won’t be rocket science and they’ll all be able to learn it well enough to play fast enough to prove what they can do.”
Pruitt will take over Scott Lakatos' position as defensive backs coach in addition to his role as defensive coordinator, leaving one spot on Georgia's coaching staff still unfilled: outside linebackers coach. Richt said he expects inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti and defensive line coach Chris Wilson to remain on staff.
He added that Pruitt should be able to hit the road recruiting on Thursday, attempting to hold onto the group of defensive verbal commitments the Bulldogs have already attracted and wrap up Georgia's recruiting class with national signing day only a few weeks away.
The message the new Georgia coach will impart seems clear.
“There’s no doubt that this is the best conference in the country, and I feel like the University of Georgia is the best school in the conference,” Pruitt said. “I wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t think so.”
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.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- The recruitment for offensive lineman Dallas Warmack (Atlanta/Mays) might be over before it really begins. Last month he picked up an offer from the Bulldogs after working out with offensive line coach Will Friend. Alabama offered the following week, and Tennessee offered on Tuesday. Warmack may not give anyone else a chance.
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UGA making 2015 ATH feel at home
For the third year in a row, 2015 athlete Terry Godwin (Hoganville, Ga./Callaway) put on a show at the tournament. The 6-foot, 170-pound rising junior has grown accustomed to performing well in Athens, and both he and his mother said after leaving that the comfort level was very high at Georgia.
“I love the atmosphere and how the coaches treat us,” Godwin said. “We are like one big happy family. Coach Richt is like my father, Coach [John] Lilly is like my uncle, and coach [Todd] Grantham is like my other uncle.”
Godwin, who is up to 10 offers, plans to check out Ole Miss, Clemson and Tennessee this summer. He and his mother both hinted a decision could come soon, which could be good news for the Bulldogs.
“Georgia is at the top of my list right now,” Godwin said. “I hope to make a decision before my junior year or at least by midseason.”
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In defensive line coach Rodney Garner, he had not only a former All-SEC player and coach at Auburn and Tennessee, he had a well-connected recruiting coordinator who helped keep Richt’s first signing class intact.
In Neil Callaway, he hired a hard-nosed offensive line coach who played under Bear Bryant at Alabama and coached under Pat Dye at multiple stops including Auburn.
And in Jon Fabris, he had a live wire who brought intensity to each practice after playing in the league at Ole Miss and coaching at multiple stops, including South Carolina.
Over the last 13 years, Richt has developed plenty of experience in the league, leading the Bulldogs to two SEC titles and five Eastern Division crowns. Throughout that time, however, the SEC presence has remained on his staff.
Bobo is the lone holdover from Richt’s first batch of hirings, but he now has company from another former Georgia player, running backs coach Bryan McClendon, and a number of other assistants who have played and coached in the league.
Offensive line coach Will Friend was an All-SEC performer at Alabama and once served as a UGA graduate assistant under Richt. New defensive line coach Chris Wilson came to Georgia in the offseason after a stint as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. And while he never coached in the SEC prior to becoming the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator in 2010, Todd Grantham worked under the league’s current kingpin, Nick Saban, as an assistant at Michigan State.
In other words, it isn’t necessary to hire a head coach with SEC ties for the coaching staff to still have the league’s distinct flavor. Richt was an up-and-coming Florida State coordinator who ran a high-scoring finesse offense when he accepted the Georgia job and yet his collection of assistants included tough coaches who cut their teeth in the SEC, helping mold differing philosophies into a winning combination.
Few programs have won more consistently than Georgia since Richt took over as the Bulldogs’ head coach, so previous SEC experience might be slightly overrated as a predictor of future success in the league. Richt’s tenure might never have gotten off the ground, however, if he hadn’t initially hired some coaches who understood the SEC’s physical demands and who already developed key recruiting contacts within the state and region.
Multiple philosophical changes that Richt instituted played some part in Georgia’s sustained success, but his tendency to hire coaches who already have a lay of the land within the nation’s most competitive football conference has been one of the most important stabilizing factors of his tenure.
Well that presents a little bit of a problem for Florida State. As an in-state target at a position of relative need, Wynn is naturally high on their board.
But does he have the Seminoles high on his?
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“I was actually sleeping around 9:30 when I got an alert on my phone from my Facebook account that I had gotten a message,” Sims said. “It was from the offensive line coach, Coach [Will] Friend. So I called him and he said they were offering me a full scholarship to come play at the University of Georgia.”
The 6-foot-4, 278-pound junior was taken aback.
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New ESPN 300 Top 10 Revealed
TBD Boise State Ole Miss TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD LSU Wisconsin TBD West Virginia Alabama TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State