Georgia Bulldogs: Xzavier Ward

We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this 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.

[+] EnlargeJohn Theus
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIJohn Theus has started 21 games during his first two seasons at Georgia.
Returning starters: Entering his junior season, John Theus has already started 21 games. He manned the right tackle spot for all 14 games in 2012 and started the last seven games of 2013. He and the versatile Kolton Houston, who started the first six games last season, handled most -- if not all -- of the significant snaps at right tackle last fall.

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.

Players to watch: Theus/Houston

February, 27, 2014
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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch once the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

[+] EnlargeJohn Theus
AP Photo/Paul AbellJohn Theus took a step back after a freshman All-American season in 2012.
We discussed wide receiver Jonathon Rumph, offensive guard Brandon Kublanow and defensive lineman Toby Johnson to start the week. We move on Thursday to two candidates to fill the starting spots at offensive tackle this fall.

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.

UGA position groups to improve: No. 4

February, 11, 2014
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Georgia doesn't open spring practice until March 18, so we'll use the next few weeks to look ahead to those all-important workouts and preview what to watch once the Bulldogs get started.

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

[+] EnlargeDavid Andrews
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIDavid Andrews returns to anchor the offensive line.
Battling for No. 1: This is perhaps one of the most interesting position groups to watch this spring. Offensive line coach Will Friend seemed fairly comfortable with most of his lineup last fall, with center David Andrews, left tackle Kenarious Gates and right guard Chris Burnette starting all 13 games and left guard Dallas Lee starting 12. It was the right tackle spot that felt like a revolving door at times, with John Theus starting eight games and Kolton Houston six. With Gates, Burnette and Lee all out of the picture now, there should be plenty of competition to fill their spots -- and just as much at essentially every position but center, where Andrews seems entrenched as a starter. Friend seemed to like what then-freshman Brandon Kublanow brought to the lineup last season at guard, so he might be one candidate to keep an eye on during the spring. But who Friend will insert into the tackle spots seems difficult to predict. Theus and Houston certainly had their ups and downs last season, but they are far and away the most experienced tackles on the roster at this point.

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. -- Despite all the offseason handwringing about how Georgia’s offensive line depth chart might change this season, Will Friend still trotted out the exact same starting five for Thursday’s first preseason practice that he deployed in nearly all 14 games last fall.

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 [2010], 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.”

Bobo targets the 229 

June, 19, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo can often be heard shouting across the practice fields in an accent that could be described as a southern drawl. Detractors -- and Bobo’s success on the recruiting trail has earned him many -- would describe his voice as “backwoods” or “countrified,” maybe even “hillbilly.”

But that country-boy swagger rings true to his roots and is the language Bobo’s recruiting targets speak. If it isn’t their first language, it is their second and they slip into it like a favorite baseball cap when Bobo talks to them.

Post-spring position review: OL 

April, 19, 2013
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Editor’s note: Over the next two weeks, we’ll take a closer look at each of Georgia’s position groups at the end of spring practice. Today we examine the offensive line:

Returning players/stats: Chris Burnette, Sr. (12 starts in 2012); Kenarious Gates, Sr. (14 starts); Dallas Lee, Sr. (14 starts); David Andrews, Jr. (14 starts); Mark Beard, Jr. (Two starts); John Theus, So. (14 starts); Austin Long, Sr.; Watts Dantzler, Jr.; Zach DeBell, So.; Hunter Long, Jr.; Xzavier Ward, So.; Greg Pyke, RFr.

Newcomers: Brandon Kublanow, Fr. (ESPN's No. 145 overall prospect in 2013, No. 2 center. Expected to enroll this summer); Aulden Bynum, Fr. (No. 47 OT. Enrolled in January); Josh Cardiello, Fr. (No. 21 OG. Enrolled in January); DeVondre Seymour, Fr. (No. 14 OT. Could enroll this summer)


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UGA OL to watch: John Theus 

April, 19, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Although he started every game at right tackle last season as a true freshman, that doesn’t mean John Theus will remain there this fall.

Offensive line coach Will Friend wasn’t ready to proclaim him a starter at the end of spring practice, at all, but a more reasonable question is probably whether the sophomore starts at left or right tackle. Because it would be a considerable upset if Theus loses a starting spot at any point in his career.

Last season, Theus became the third true freshman offensive tackle to start Georgia’s season opener since freshmen became eligible to play in 1973. And while he wasn’t perfect, he won multiple freshman All-America rosters and validated the excitement that accompanied his signing with Georgia more than a year ago.


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Position scouting report: OT 

January, 17, 2013
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Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each position on Georgia’s depth chart and project how it might look in the future. Today we examine Georgia’s offensive tackles:

2012 two-deep depth chart:
LT: Kenarious Gates (Jr.), Mark Beard (So.)
RT: John Theus (Fr.), Watts Dantzler (So.)

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UGA midseason report card: OL 

October, 11, 2012
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Editor’s note: Georgia’s football season is at the halfway mark, and the Bulldogs will take this weekend off before resuming SEC play next Saturday at Kentucky. We'll take a look at a different position group each day this week and evaluate how it performed in the first half of the season in our DawgNation midseason report cards.

ATHENS, Ga. -- The public opinion of Georgia’s offensive line was, for a time, much more positive than it is today, after the Bulldogs’ numerous breakdowns led directly to a 35-7 loss at South Carolina.

Will Friend’s rebuilt line had been surprisingly effective in the first five games, paving the way for Georgia to rank among the nation’s most explosive offenses.

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Upon Further Review: UGA 56, FAU 20 

September, 17, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- After rewatching Georgia’s 56-20 win against Florida Atlantic on ESPN3 today, I can’t say that I learned much that wasn’t apparent from watching the game live.

The Bulldogs’ first-team offense was as good as I’ve seen it, there was an ugly first half for Georgia’s defense and the game eventually turned into a bludgeoning. But let’s jump into some of the finer points of the Bulldogs’ win in this week’s “Upon Further Review.”

• This is one of those situations where you ask if someone wants the good news or the bad news first. I prefer the bad news first in such a scenario, and that would be that Georgia’s defense had a truly awful first half against another opponent which had no business moving the ball so effectively.

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Notebook: O-line plan undetermined

September, 5, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt remains hopeful that right tackle John Theus will be able to return this Saturday from the sprained ankle that knocked him out of last weekend’s Buffalo game. Because if Theus is unable to go, Richt’s Georgia club has not yet established a contingency plan.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I really don’t,” Richt said after Wednesday’s practice.

Theus and fellow offensive lineman Watts Dantzler, who also sprained his left ankle against Buffalo, returned to practice in non-contact jerseys on Wednesday. While working on the side with a trainer during the practice periods that were open to the media, Theus was able to move more fluidly than Dantzler, who limped noticeably.

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Around the Hedges in 80 Days: X. Ward 

August, 27, 2012
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Five days remain until Georgia kicks off its season opener against Buffalo on Saturday. In the days counting down to the opener, DawgNation will profile, with our “Around the Hedges in 80 Days” series, a Bulldogs player we expect to make an impact. We will review each player’s career thus far and project his long-term potential as we progress through our alphabetical list, from center David Andrews to receiver Rantavious Wooten.

5. Xzavier Ward
Redshirt freshman, Offensive tackle
6-foot-7, 293 pounds



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ATHENS, Ga. -- Entering college always comes with its share of culture shock for a true freshman, but luckily for Georgia tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, he gets by with a little help from some friends.

The Moultrie, Ga., native was preceded at Georgia last year by a Colquitt County High School teammate, Xzavier Ward, and arrived in Athens this summer alongside another former Packer, walk-on offensive lineman Preston Mobley.

“It’s great to have people up here you know,” Flournoy-Smith said. “That way you’re not a strange face. You’re just, whenever you need help, you can go to X.”

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Depth a concern on left side of O-line 

August, 14, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s starting offensive line appears to be set.

Now the Bulldogs must develop depth behind the six players with whom the coaches are comfortable -- tackles Kenarious Gates and John Theus, guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette, center David Andrews and reserve guard/tackle Watts Dantzler -- and a couple of areas of concern still exist.

The right tackle spot was probably the biggest question mark as the Bulldogs opened preseason camp, with Theus and Dantzler looking to replace still-ineligible Kolton Houston. But both players have been solid this August and are SEC-ready players, according to their coaches. A more glaring issue now is the depth on the left side of the Bulldogs’ line.

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Notebook: Samuel back as top tailback? 

August, 2, 2012
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Ken Malcome became Georgia’s presumptive starting tailback after Isaiah Crowell’s dismissal in June, but his status atop the depth chart is far from concrete.

With senior Richard Samuel returning to the position full-time -- following a spring during which he also played fullback -- and freshmen Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley officially joining the competition at Thursday’s first preseason practice, Malcome still must earn the starting spot.

“They’ve done a great job of absorbing everything,” quarterback Aaron Murray said of the new freshmen, “but we have Richard, who’s probably going to get the majority of the reps, so I know he knows everything. And when it comes to the game plan, actually, it’s not like you’re putting the whole offense into the game plan. So it definitely gets narrowed down and they’ll be able to narrow down their focus onto a certain amount of plays that they’ll need to work on for that week.”

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