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What a Difference a Year Makes

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Georgia's much-improved offensive line play has been the catalyst for its success.

Barring something cataclysmic, Georgia is effectively a lock to represent the SEC East, in Atlanta, this December. With a resounding 42-7 victory over rival Florida, the third-ranked Bulldogs are now 8-0, overall, and 5-0 in conference play.

It has been a perfect storm of circumstances that has led to this team’s success -- returning leadership and production from a number of pro prospects, improved quarterback and special teams play, the emergence, and reemergence in the case of Terry Godwin, of their pass catchers -- but, perhaps most prominently, is the commitment to development and subsequent stability along the offensive line.

In 2016, Georgia had one of the worst units in the country, both run blocking and pass protecting.

They averaged 3.06 line yards (a Football Outsiders metric that attempts to separate what a ball carrier does from the yardage that the line creates, inasmuch as that’s possible) on standard downs (63rd in FBS), and 3.39 on passing downs (54th). On its face, that seems average, if underwhelming, but when adjusted for opposition, their offensive line yards ranked 101st in the country.

They also allowed their runners to be stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage 20.7% of the time (94th), and converted just 59.1% of third or fourth down carries with two or fewer yards to go (113th).

The pass protection was a little better, with a 5.4% sack rate on standard downs (74th), 6% on passing downs (38th), and a final ranking of 58th, when adjusted for opponents.

Still, for a team with Georgia’s identity, a team that ran the ball at the 28th highest rate in the nation, that level of offensive line play is unacceptable. The results, in the way of wins and losses, at least by the Bulldog’s standards, bore that out.

Ahead of the 2017 campaign, concerns lingered over the state of the offensive line. The staff had decided to do some shuffling, including moving the team’s two best blockers from their prior positions; something they had tried, unsuccessfully, to do in the past (see: Greg Pyke).

There were worries about a lack of experience, with new starters at three spots, and the other two filled by guys in new positions: converted center, from guard, Lamont Gaillard, and converted tackle, also from guard, Isaiah Wynn.

Analysts, fairly, posited the question, would Wynn, undersized for the position, be able to succeed against SEC edge rushers? Would Gaillard, the team’s most highly graded out offensive lineman, the year prior, be able to maintain his level of contributions having to snap the ball?

At this point, after dominating a vaunted Gator front seven, it seems fair to say, overwhelmingly, yes to both.

Wynn, in 147 pass block snaps, has allowed just one sack and three hurries. No tackle in the SEC has a higher pass block efficiency, right now.

Gaillard started slower. His transition was not nearly as smooth as Wynn’s. However, his improvement has been a catalyst for the improvement of the entire offensive line. After struggling early, he has found his footing, and still, on the season, has allowed just only four hurries, and no sacks.

Junior Kendall Baker, too, needed some time to get comfortable in his left guard spot, but he, along with redshirt freshman Solomon Kindley, at right guard, and true freshman right tackle Andrew Thomas now, finally, seems to all be on the same page.

On the whole, Georgia’s standard down and passing down line yards have leapt into the top 40 and top 10, respectively. They are allowing fewer stuffs and converting more short yardage rushes. Even the opponent adjusted sack rate is nearing the top 40.

What a difference a year makes.

To be clear, this is still not an elite unit. Considering the running backs that Georgia have, the offensive line gets bailed out occasionally. The freshmen play like freshmen from time to time. Baker’s inexperience shines through every now and then. Even Gaillard will still look uncomfortable every once in awhile.

The thing is, this group is so much better than last year’s and still improving. With, as previously stated, the rest of the offensive line seemingly following Gaillard’s lead, the unit continues to improve, on a week-to-week basis, at a faster rate than seemingly any other, in college football.

As the ‘Dawgs’ front continues to steadily improve, so do their chances of playing in January.

It’s not a finished product, but it’s a whole lot better than it was, and whole lot better than most people expected.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP