Georgia guard Dallas Lee, far right, is one of three starting offensive linemen who are playing their final season in a Bulldogs uniform. (Reuters)
When the subject was broached with Mark Richt about losing three of his starters off the offensive line after this season, Georgia’s coach made it clear he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Between the Georgia Tech game and the bowl game, you’ve got time to reflect on those kinds of things,” he said curtly. “I’m not going to say things like that never cross my mind, but I won’t bring it up to staff, and I won’t be talking to anybody about those things.”
His brusqueness is understandable considering what the Bulldogs are losing. Guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee and left tackle Kenarious Gates have more than 100 starts between them. To be exact, after Saturday’s Tech game and whatever bowl Georgia plays in, that trio will leave having started a combined 106 times. They will have participated in dozens more.
That’s a fact that hasn’t been bantered about much among UGA fans when they talk excitedly about next season’s offensive prospects. The thought of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall returning in the backfield and almost the entire receiving corps being back in the fold is certainly encouraging. But the reality is Georgia will look at a rebuilding job up front (there will be a notable change at quarterback as well, though that transition has been hastened a bit).
“We’re going to miss those guys,” said junior Kolton Houston, who likely will fill one of the vacated positions. “They’re definitely great players. They have all those starts together, and they’re great leaders, too, great people. So we’ll definitely miss them. But we’ll have to have some young guys step up and fill their roles next year.”
It’s not like Georgia’s line has been a bunch of road-grading All-Americans during the seasons when this year’s seniors got the bulk of their work. But they’ll leave with a reputation as a “heady” group, a bunch of smart guys who might not have been biggest or most athletic in every weekly matchup, but always knew their assignment and played with a powerful mixture of technique and fight.
“Sometimes all you need to do is just get a hat on a hat,” Richt said. “When you’ve played together a lot, and everybody knows what everybody else is doing, you can do that.”
The growth and development of the current group is evident over these past three seasons as the Bulldogs’ offensive production increased progressively. They went from 408.5 yards per game in 2011, to 467.7 last season to 494.6 this one.
This year’s production has come despite the Bulldogs losing their top two rushers and four leading receivers for extended periods of time, if not the whole season. And now, of course, they’ve lost quarterback Aaron Murray to a season-ending knee injury as well.
Managing to stay healthy themselves, the linemen believe, is a big reason Georgia has continued to move the football.
“We’ve been pretty healthy along the O-line,” said Lee, who will start his fourth game at left guard Saturday. “Nothing really major has kept anybody off the field. It’s really been a blessing for us to stay healthy in that core unit with everything else that was happening around us. It’s meant a lot to the team, and it’s nice having the same people around you every game.”
Gates, who has started 31 games in a row at left tackle and 37 total, had his ankle rolled up on late against LSU. Lee sprained an elbow in practice two weeks ago, but has toughed it out the past two games. Burnette overcame off-season shoulder surgery to start every game this season and 35 total.
“It’s a great accomplishment for everybody just to stay away from injury,” Gates said. “But 100 starts for Georgia, playing in the SEC, that’s really something.”
As is the cyclical nature of college football, all that stability will be subject to change next season. The Bulldogs will have to first identify, then break in, three new starters.
“Younger guys that are here now will come in and fill the spots we’re leaving,” said Gates, a 6-foot-5, 327-pound senior. “I feel pretty confident that those guys are going to step up and continue the tradition of the offensive line.”
Center David Andrews and right tackle John Theus will be returning starters. Gates’ left-tackle position will be a critical spot, with Theus, Houston and Xzavier Ward competing with Gates’ current backup, junior Mark Beard. Watts Dantzler, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke, Hunter Long and Zach DeBell will be in the mix at guard and some at tackle.
“We’ll have to re-do some stuff,” said Andrews, who’s working on a 25-start streak himself. “It’ll kind of feel like my sophomore year again. We had Ben (Jones) and Cordy (Glenn) and all those guys leave, and you had people like me who had to step up. I know our guys will take that opportunity.”