- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- If an offensive lineman is going to play SEC football as a true freshman, he has to be a tough son-of-a-gun, among other things.
He has to be big enough to stand up to the fully grown veterans charging at him. He must be smart enough to pick up the offense and have the motor to play consistently from down to down. But most of all, he can't be shy in his attempt to dominate whomever enters his path.
"If you're going to be a football player, at some point you're going to have to take a stand," Georgia Bulldogs offensive line coach Will Friend said. "Some guys don't."
Fortunately for Friend, freshman John Theus is not one of those guys. Friend and Theus both admit the newcomer is a long way from becoming a dominant college player -- but Theus isn't backing down against older, more physically developed competition.
Watch him push and shove with senior defensive end Cornelius Washington after a drill during practice and you'll see that Theus isn't afraid to compete.
"He definitely has a lot of spunk about him, that's for sure," Washington said with a smile. "I can tell because at the end of a rep, I'm done at the end of the rep and he wants to keep going. The rep's over with, so let's move on along. But he's a pretty good guy. I think he's going to be big here."
That was the idea when Georgia signed Theus -- whom ESPN rated as the No. 5 offensive tackle and No. 28 prospect overall in the 2012 signing class -- in February. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt immediately compared Theus' college potential to that of former Georgia players including Matthew Stafford and A.J. Green, both of whom left for the NFL after three college seasons.
Georgia's coaches have thrown Theus into the deep end right away, inserting him into a first-team role at right tackle shortly after preseason camp started. That meant staring down potentially intimidating players like Washington in an effort to prove he can hold down the job.
"It's not a contact sport, it's a collision sport," Theus explained. "We're just out there grinding. If it gets a little chippy, it's a little chippy, but after that play we're good."
If Theus does retain the first-team spot ahead of Watts Dantzler at right tackle for the Sept. 1 game against Buffalo, he'll become just the second true freshman offensive lineman under Richt to start Georgia's opener, joining eventual Freshman all-American Trinton Sturdivant (2007). In fact, only a handful of true freshman offensive linemen have started at any point in a season under Richt -- a select group that includes Ben Jones, Clint Boling and Cordy Glenn in recent seasons.
And yet Georgia's players and coaches expect not only that Theus will start, but that fellow true freshman Greg Pyke could also contribute this season if necessary.
"After seeing them work out and just seeing the way that they've caught onto the plays, I feel like they can help us in some capacity now," said junior Chris Burnette, who is working ahead of Pyke at right guard. "Just looking back at my freshman year, I don't feel like I was anywhere near as prepared as they are. I feel like they know the stuff. I feel like they have the size and the strength and I feel like they can help us if they need to. And I think the big thing that matters is their own confidence. If they believe they can help us, then they will."
Thus far, confidence has not been an issue with Theus, according to quarterback Aaron Murray.
"It's not like it's a rookie in there shaking and crying or something like that," Murray said. "He's out there doing his thing and manning up and working hard just like the rest of the guys."
In high school Theus played in a run-based Wing-T offense, so he hasn't done much pass blocking in his career. He said picking up those responsibilities and the more sophisticated footwork required in Georgia's pro-style offense have been a big adjustment.
He figured out quickly as preseason camp started that blocking players like Washington and Jarvis Jones was nothing like the competition he faced in high school.
"There's a lot of stuff the first week showed me," Theus said. "College football exposes you. There's a lot of stuff I need to work on."
Still, Theus has been good enough to jump into a leading role right away. His toughness is a big factor in his getting into that position. Now it's a matter of mastering the little things that help a player with great potential become dominant.
"The big adjustment is probably being a tough player and the difference in the size of your opponent, the tempo that you're playing at, the speed that you have to play with," Friend said. "And if you're a tough guy, I think you have a chance to adjust quicker. He's just got to keep going. He's a long way from there, now. He's a long way from where he needs to be."
Learning on the fly and overcoming high school flaws can be a tall order for a college freshman, but Georgia's John Theus has the grit, confidence and talent to have earned a starting spot, while fellow frosh Greg Pyke is earning similar praise.