- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Considering how much time he has spent reshuffling the deck among his players, it would not be a surprise if Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend felt his group hadn't made much progress through three games.
Instead, while he is quick to point out that the rebuilding line's performance has been far from perfect, Friend will concede that his players had a good night in last Saturday's record-setting win against Florida Atlantic.
"They played hard and they did a good job communicating and they were pretty good on assignments and it gave us a chance to be successful," Friend said Tuesday. "We've got a long way to go.
"We're just trying to improve each day. We've got a big challenge ahead of us Saturday, but we've got a challenge tomorrow, we've got a challenge Thursday and a challenge Friday to get ready and just try to keep it on that plane with them. It's a younger group and I think that's what we've got to do."
Friend's line entered the season as one of the biggest question marks facing a Georgia team ranked No. 5 in the nation, a team that returned experienced players at most positions. After losing three starting linemen from last season to the NFL, it didn't help the rebuilding effort that Kolton Houston's NCAA eligibility case remains unresolved or that starters Dallas Lee and John Theus and reserves Hunter Long and Watts Dantzler have dealt with injuries since preseason camp opened in August.
Theus has started all three games at right tackle, although he was still recovering -- and struggling -- in Week 2 from the ankle sprain he suffered in the opener against Buffalo. Lee, at left guard, left the Florida Atlantic game with an ankle sprain and his status for Saturday's game against Vanderbilt is uncertain. It's a good thing that Friend has rotated several linemen during practice in order to build continuity.
"The communication part of it's so much bigger when you're with somebody every day and every snap," Friend said. "We try to roll them enough to where that works out."
It certainly worked out against Florida Atlantic, when the Bulldogs' 713 yards became a single-game school record for total offense. When Lee's injury knocked him out of the game in the second quarter, Mark Beard came in at left tackle, Kenarious Gates shifted into Lee's spot at guard, and the linemen were pleased with the results.
"Chris Burnette had a lot of good pulls and cuts and he just played his tail off all night," center David Andrews said. "John played a lot better and I just think as a whole we played a lot better. And we set a school record, so that was cool to be a part of. I think it was definitely our best game as a unit."
Georgia coach Mark Richt said if Lee can't go against Vanderbilt the Bulldogs will probably start out with the same lineup they employed after Lee's injury: Beard at left tackle, Gates at left guard, Andrews at center, Burnette at right guard and Theus at right tackle.
By all accounts, Beard performed well in his first considerable playing time after joining the Bulldogs as a junior college transfer in the offseason.
"I feel like I played pretty good," Beard said, "just getting out there and getting the feel of the game at the D-1 level."
The player who lined up beside him, Gates, agreed, saying that he and Beard quickly developed a good communicative vibe during the game.
"I was like, 'Mark, let's go. Let's play ball," Gates said. "I'm going to talk to you, you talk to me and let me know what they're doing and let's make the right call and just go with it. If we make the wrong call, let's just go with it.
"And that's what we did and we just had fun. When he made the right play, I'd just smile and say, 'Good job.' I was happy for him that he got to play and he did a great job."
Friend said he had intended to play Beard early in the game even before Lee's injury, and the versatile sophomore enjoyed the opportunity to play both left tackle and left guard once he entered the game. Friend didn't expect to make the exact moves Lee's injury forced him to make, but he hopes the experience will benefit his players.
"Ken Gates, he hadn't played left guard in a year, really," Friend said. "Pretty much Saturday, it was like, 'Hey you're going in at left guard.' Really to finish the game the other night, Mark hadn't played left guard in probably a month and it was, 'Hey Mark, you're going in at left guard.'
"So the communication's so big to give guys a chance to do that, and when you're by somebody over and over in the same group, it's just like when you're married -- communication's important there and in any relationship, I guess."
The offensive line is probably the last position group where Georgia could afford to have injuries upset its continuity and yet Friend and his players still see signs of progress.
It would be helpful to have a player with Lee's experience -- Lee has started 10 games, whereas Beard has no starts -- available for the Vanderbilt game, but Friend is looking at a bigger picture than whether a single lineman will be able to play Saturday.
He and his players have focused since spring practice on making incremental improvements each day, and that process is still in its early stages.
"I think we're playing a little bit better," Friend said. "We've still got to improve on assignments, we've still got to improve on hat speed.
"I thought they played extremely hard the last two weeks and you're supposed to. It's not like that's nothing to go jump up and down about -- you're supposed to play hard -- but I thought they played hard the last two weeks and if you'll do that and you'll focus and keep it one day at a time and one task at a time, you're going to be all right, so we've got to keep doing that."
The notable "But what about ...?" part of spring practice and fall camp was Georgia's O-line, but three games into the season the unit is developing strong relationships, communication and a key willingness to rely on one another.