Georgia Football: 34th NFL Franchise

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Before computers were personal and jeans were designer, offensive lines were catechism in football. The O-line was the marrow of an offense because the game was run-oriented. Now it is quarterback-centric and the jersey numbers 50 through 79 don’t mean as much to us.

Before we go any further…timeout.

Look at me, a guy who thinks a football team’s toughness comes from its offensive line, and I am still going to launch first into this scold on how you look at quarterback.

Twenty-five NFL scouts were at a game Saturday to watch a college quarterback.

It wasn’t Trevor Lawrence of Clemson.

It was Trey Lance of North Dakota State. The red-shirt sophomore will be the third quarterback taken in the 2021 NFL draft behind Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. The NFL flocked to Fargo—not the movie, the town—to see a guy you never heard of. It was North Dakota State’s only game of the season because of the pandemic, but sooner or later the NFL was going to be there. Lance will be a Top 10 pick because he runs like Dak Prescott and some team will use him like the Bills use Josh Allen.

Air Force, Columbia, Cornell, and Northern Illinois were the sorts of schools that offered Lance. His home state U., Minnesota, recruited him, but not to play quarterback. Many college football coaches and recruiting services didn’t think Lance could play D-1 quarterback. And, yet, here he is.

So, close your eyes. Stuff cotton in your ears. Block out the blather about size and arm strength. You have been conditioned about quarterbacks. You think a 5-foot-11½ guy like Stetson Bennett IV cannot lead your team to a national championship. He can.

Two NFL scouts watching the UGa-Auburn game texted me, “Accuracy and instincts” said one. “Instincts” said another, when I asked about Bennett.

Said one, “People (NFL teams) would rather take a shot at developing (Arkansas) Feleipe Franks (6-foot-6) rather than the 6-footer who actually has instincts.”

He added, “QB evals are so off.”

Trey Lance and Stetson Bennett pierce the ideality of the successful quarterback. The NFL has caught up to Lance. Have Georgia fans caught up with Bennett? You know, embraced him?

If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Kirby Smart to say it’s ok? He did last Monday by telling Bennett he was the starter.

Saturday night, Bennett was solid again in a 27-6 victory over No. 7 Auburn, just like he was against Arkansas. But, admit it, the 6-foot-3 quarterback at Alabama just hung up 52 points on Texas A&M, and the 6-foot-5 quarterback at Florida just led his team to 38 points, and you’re not sure if your guy is explosive enough because he’s not tall enough. You are being dragged to like him.

Me, I didn’t worry about Bennett before this game with Auburn. If I was a Georgia fan, I wasn’t even too worried about the Georgia offensive line because the Bulldogs have entered a new realm in the Kirby Smart Era.

Georgia has put itself among the scarcity of teams that plug-and-play in college football. If you didn’t want to believe it before, believe it now. Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia…and LSU coming right up behind when it decides to coach.

We have seen this year after year with the top four programs in the country. They lose players to the NFL and they have talent hustling over from the field of third-teamers.

Alabama is on its 14th season of fitting in replacements who make a name for themselves, sometimes a bigger name than they guy they replaced. It’s why the NFL has labeled the Crimson Tide the NFL’s 33rd franchise. Georgia, which is gone national in its recruiting, is coming up as No. 34, along with Clemson and Ohio State.

Here is something else. When Georgia needs an offensive line coach—Sam Pittman, Matt Luke—it pays them and gets them to Athens.

Georgia lost four starters on the offensive line from the 2019 team. Saturday night the Bulldogs rolled for 202 yards on the ground. They were geared to run and then used play-action. They drove the ball on Auburn. Straight up the gut, tackle-to-tackle. They did not false start, hold, line up in the backfield, nothing.

The five interior linemen for Georgia are all draft eligible. They are as under-rated as the quarterback. In an offensive line-heavy 2021 NFL draft, not one shows up in the NFL top 100 of players. Not one. By December, the NFL will have figured out it can draft right guard Ben Cleveland by the third round. It will snatch up center Trey Hill, who will be first-team All-SEC. Georgia may lose another four starters to the NFL.

You get the picture?

The offensive line is left tackle Jamaree Salyer (6-4, 325), left guard Justin Shaffer (6-4, 330), the 6-foot-4, 330-pound Hill at center, Cleveland the right guard (6-6, 335) Cleveland, and right tackle Owen Condon (6-7, 310). We also saw right tackle Warren McClendon (6-4, 320).

The offensive line was also beefed up by 6-6, 230 tight end John Fitzpatrick and 6-7, 260 tight end Darnell Washington.

Georgia lost highly-regarded O-lineman Cade Mays to Tennessee in a snit and, so what?

These guys just plowed Auburn on Saturday night. There was one trap play with Cleveland while Auburn had a blitz call and third-string tailback Kenny McIntosh got a 9-yard run. It was my favorite play of the night. Execution was dynamite.

Smart took one question about the offensive line after the game and he was not congenial. He sounded spiteful, such are his expectations.

“They were terrible last week, so something must have just happened,” Smart said of his O-line play against Auburn. “I mean the Wizard of Oz came and saw them and gave them all courage and ability and they played better.”

Georgia had field position and drove the ball: 10 plays, 43 yards, touchdown. 11 plays, 59 yards, field goal.

Then it had a big field of green and went 84 yards in 11 plays. Then it went explosive, 6 plays for 72 yards and a touchdown.

I just wrote about 400 words without mentioning the quarterback Bennett. He will be known as a “game manager”, but that’s ok because quarterback Greg McElroy was a game manager for Alabama’s 2009 national champion. Georgia is on that level. It doesn’t need a spectacular quarterback to win a national title.

It needs players around that quarterback. Auburn was so geared to wideout George Pickens, Bennett found the other wideout Kearis Jackson (9 catches, 147 yards). That is the stuff of Alabama.

Here is what Georgia fans should think about. This SEC season is different. Ten games. No rest stops (well, maybe Vanderbilt). I have always shuddered at the thought of TV getting its way, or Nick Saban getting his way, and that Power 5 teams only play Power 5 teams. College teams are not built for that kind of good-on-good schedule. These guys are 19-20-21 years old. You need a break, a Coastal Carolina, a Louisiana-Monroe. It’s not fair to the players to play 10 games against SEC teams.

SEC teams, more than ever this season, need depth on the offensive line. You know where Georgia has the most players: offensive line. 24. Tackle to tackle.

As the season progresses, the teams with all that depth from multi-million dollar recruiting classes—Georgia, Alabama, Clemson, Florida—are going to have an advantage. Their offensive lines are going to get nicked up. Think about how many pitchers the Braves have gone through to get three starters and you will get the idea: things happen. Ohio State is going to show up healthier in the playoffs because of a less rigorous schedule, but Georgia will have more depth.

I kept thinking in the summer why Georgia was ranked so high (No. 4) when it lost four offensive line starters and had quarterback issues. It was because of plug-and-play, Alabama-style. The NFL’s 34th franchise is in a groove.

NFL executive Phil Savage and I wrote a book, “Fourth And Goal Every Day.” It is about The Process at Alabama. Nick Saban’s former assistants have tried to copy it and emulate it, but they all lack one thing: consistency in adopting the fundamentals of The Process. They detour with their own wrinkles.

Kirby Smart has not detoured. We’ll see how close Georgia is to Alabama this week against Tennessee and we’ll definitely see where the Bulldogs are at Alabama the week after. Nick Saban is now 20-0 against his former assistant coaches. Nick is going to look in the mirror and see Alabama in red and black on Oct. 17. There is just enough time for buildup for this to be Game of the Century, like Alabama-LSU in 2012. Get ready.

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