Offensive line hunts consistency
Unit has had its moments, but lapses and lack of depth have hindered production
ATHENS, Ga. -- When asked about Georgia's offensive line after last weekend's win over Mississippi State, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo offered an assessment that could apply to his offense as a whole.
"We're too inconsistent," Bobo said. "Sometimes we're blowing them off the ball and really handling things, and then other times we miss an easy pickup in pass protection. But I do see us getting better."
Coach Mark Richt agreed, saying, "When I watch film, I see that we have the ability to do better and do it on a more consistent basis. I don't want to sound like I'm totally picking on the line. At all positions we can get better. But I'll say it again: When the OL and DL play great, you are going to have a good season and a good team."
Led by freshman Isaiah Crowell, the Bulldogs have moved the ball on the ground consistently, but running backs coach Bryan McClendon and offensive line coach Will Friend know that if Georgia is to build the well-rounded offense it desires, their position groups need to do a better job of protecting quarterback Aaron Murray.
Only Kentucky and Vanderbilt have allowed more sacks among SEC teams than Georgia's 13, and the Bulldogs are tied for 94th out of 120 FCS teams with 2.6 sacks allowed per game.
"The thing that we challenged them with this week, and the backs also -- Coach McClendon and I both put a challenge -- we've got to do a better job of protecting the quarterback," Friend said. "We did some good things in the run game, did some good things at times in the pass game. But we've got to do a good job of protecting the quarterback and finishing blocks."
Nonetheless, Georgia's line has made significant strides since a bunch with three new starters was overmatched in the season-opening loss to Boise State. The Bulldogs rolled up 436 yards and 42 points the following week against South Carolina, and they have easily outgained each opponent since then.
Senior center Ben Jones attributed the improvement to the linemen growing comfortable working together. Where they busted plenty of assignments against Boise State, Jones said the group better understands which defensive players to block on each play.
"That's the key for the offensive line is everybody being on the same page," Jones said. "You might have one play everybody comes off and does great, but the next play somebody busts and that kills a drive. I think that's what we've been doing well here lately is everybody getting on the right guys and making plays."
As for the second-half lulls, Jones agreed it was a matter of consistency. After the Bulldogs built comfortable leads in the last two games, Jones said a group effort contributed to the offense totaling only six points.
"The first couple of drives, we were sound," Jones said. "Everybody was on the right guys. In the second half, one play it would be a tight end, one play it would be a running back, one play would be us. We just need to come together as a whole team and get on the right guys. It takes everybody to have a perfect play."
It would help if Friend had a bit more depth at his disposal. Thanks to injuries and Kolton Houston's ongoing NCAA eligibility issue, the Bulldogs essentially played only the starting five offensive linemen in the last two games, as the team rolled up big play totals in its no-huddle scheme.
"We're playing more plays than we've ever played before, and there's not a whole lot of rotation going on," Richt said. "There's none really. So fatigue could be part of it."
Starting guard Chris Burnette is working his way back from a knee injury and could contribute this weekend against Tennessee (3-1, 0-1), along with Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee. Tackle Austin Long is still not ready to play following a series of injuries and ailments that have prevented the third-year Bulldog from playing a college down thus far.
Freshmen such as center David Andrews and tackle Watts Dantzler are getting closer to becoming regular contributors -- particularly Andrews -- but they aren't there yet.
"We got the ball down and if we'd have scored on one of those drives early I was going to go with David Andrews," Friend said of the Mississippi State game. "David is doing well and he deserves to play and is playing well enough to play. But you've got to play with your best, and the game still was in doubt."
The best from Friend's linemen has been enough to help the Bulldogs generate impressive offensive totals at times this season. But he and his fellow coaches realize that developing more consistent play from the offense as a whole, with the line paving the way, will be the key if the Bulldogs are to become the offensive force they envision.
"The better we get up front, the better we are going to be on offense," Richt said. "Usually it has to happen up front first, and then you find out how good your skill is. ... Don't get me wrong, we are doing a lot of good things. I know we could do better, and I just want to see us reach our potential. We're not there yet."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at email@example.com.