Offensive Line Coming Together

ATHENS - When Fernando Velasco took over for Max Jean-Gilles in the second quarter of Saturday's game, it didn't draw much notice. The No. 3 Bulldogs were already halfway to a 45-16 whipping of the Tigers and the details seemed irrelevant at that point.

However, it was a big moment for Georgia, a sign that not only are the depth problems of 2003 fading but also that the program is finally recovering from a damaging two-year recruiting drought.

Last season, when the Bulldogs gave up an SEC-worst and much-publicized 47 sacks, it was the first time they really felt the affect of the recruiting classes of 1999 and 2000. In 1999, the Bulldogs signed three offensive linemen -- Kevin Breedlove, Alex Jackson and Josh Billue -- and Billue never made an impact. More glaringly, Georgia didn't sign a single offensive lineman in the 2000 class.

It's not that the Bulldogs didn't want any linemen that year, they just ran into a string of bad luck, said recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner, who joined Jim Donnan's staff in 1998 and was retained by Mark Richt.

"We were on some big-time players, and we kept coming in second," Garner said.

That was the year Alex Barron went to Florida State and Justin Smiley went to Alabama, Garner said. Both players strongly considered Georgia and both turned out to be excellent linemen.

"We were there, but we were the bridesmaid," Garner said, "not the bride."

The result was, three years later, the Bulldogs were starting four sophomores and a true freshman across the front in 2003. As importantly, they had no reserves that were ready to play. When Bartley Miller and Josh Brock were hampered by shoulder injuries, the Bulldogs didn't have anyone ready to fill their shoes.

"It really was a nightmare," Coach Mark Richt said. "Forty-seven sacks is just an unbelievable number."

The Bulldogs now have made enough progress that they can overcome injuries even without Brock and Miller in the rotation. Both players are being redshirted this year to allow nagging shoulder injuries to heal completely.

Jean-Gilles was moved from tackle to guard and Nick Jones from center to guard to fill the spots left by those two, they and have been more effective in those spots. That was never more evident than against LSU. Last year, Richt said, the Tigers disrupted Georgia's offense with pressure in the interior.

"Their big men in the middle just worked their way through our young line," he said.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs held starting Tiger tackles Kyle Williams and Glen Dorsey to seven total tackles and just one tackle for loss. LSU's entire offensive line had just one sack overall. The interior of Georgia's offensive line is playing better now than it did at any point last season, offensive line coach Neil Callaway said.

"The more guys we have to play, the better we're going to be," said Johnson County's Russ Tanner, the Bulldogs' starting center.

And the group's effectiveness didn't diminish much when Velasco replaced Jean-Gilles, a first-team All-SEC selection, or when former walk-on Ryan Schnetzer rotated every other series with Tanner.

"There is a lot of experience in this group now," Richt said. "If we continue to recruit well and not hit a spot where we just don't sign any (linemen), we're going to be OK."

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