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Gator Bowl: Theus hopes to be dominant on offensive front

John Theus

John Theus

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In 2012, Georgia’s John Theus started at right tackle in all 14 games as a true freshman. He was named freshman All-America and freshman All-SEC. For all practical purposes, he lived up to his lofty billing as a 5-star recruiting prospect. All signs pointed to a spectacular sophomore campaign.

Instead, Theus started seven fewer games this season. He eventually won back his starting job but continues to share time at the position. So what happened?

Nothing really, the Bulldogs insist.

“I think he’s progressed really well,” Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “No lineman’s really ready to play as a freshman. It was just the situation we were in. I think he performed well and showed a lot of toughness last year. But he had his ups and downs.”

Theus also had an injury issue he dealt with after last season. The 6-foot-6, 300-pounder from Jacksonville had surgery to repair a fractured metatarsal bone in his right foot on Jan. 23. His recovery and rehabilitation took Theus out of offseason strength and conditioning training and he missed half of spring practice. The injury continued to affect him well after his return.

Meanwhile, there was the reemergence of Kolton Houston. The fourth-year junior had his eligibility restored by the NCAA in August after a prolonged battle over the presence of performance-enhancing drugs in his system. While Houston didn’t play a single before this season, he long ago had established himself as a formidable lineman. He left every spring or preseason camp somewhere in the Bulldogs’ starting five.

“(Theus) had some competition and he fell behind a little bit,” Bobo said. “But to his credit, he worked his tail off and kept getting better each week. He worked his way back into the starting lineup and that was good to see.”

Said line coach Will Friend: “John’s a young player that’s got talent. He works hard and he’s had a better last half of the season. … He’s got a ways to go, he knows that and we look for him to keep improving.”

For the third time in two seasons, Theus will be playing in his hometown. The Jacksonville native prepped nearby at the Bolles School. He’s got a chance to go 3-0 at EverBank Field with a win over Nebraska on Wednesday in the Gator Bowl.

Theus left high school as one of the most sought-after recruiting prospects the area has seen. He was rated the No. 1 player in the state and No. 2 offensive lineman in the nation by Scout and a consensus 5-star prospect by Scout, Rivals and ESPN.

Wherever he signed, the projections not only were that Theus would be a dominant lineman, but that he’d be a force at the all-important left tackle position. But two years in, he has been unable to unseat Kenarious Gates, a senior who will be playing his last collegiate game on Wednesday. Theus doesn’t view that as a shortcoming.

“I don’t care what people think about me or the goals other people have for me,” Theus said. “One of the goals I have for myself is to reach the pinnacle of All-SEC, All-American. I think that would be awesome. But I’ve just got to keep getting better every day and working in the offseason will be a big part of it.”

By all accounts, Theus has everything it takes to achieve those aspirations. He’ll be involved in the competition to succeed Gates at left tackle. Whether he does so or not, he is expected to be somewhere among the starting five.

“I mean, just to start at right tackle as a true freshman on a team that finished in the top five or wherever we were last year was pretty special,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Obviously he’s stronger, he’s more athletic, he knows more about what we’re doing, so he’s becoming that guy.

“But in our league, it’s tough to be dominant. If you can play and function and help us win, you’re a heck of a football player. To be a dominant force, I wouldn’t tag him with that right now. But he’s still got time to become that.”

Theus says he’s up for the challenge.

“Knock on wood, I’ll have no injuries this offseason so I can hit the weight room hard, work on my footwork and just get better every day,” Theus said. “I have two more years of eligibility left and I want to help this team out. It will be my turn next year to try to be a leader on this team. I really need to step it up. Hopefully I can.”