A cursory glance at Georgia's roster provides plenty of cause for optimism on the offensive side of the ball. While quarterback Aaron Murray and tight end Arthur Lynch have exhausted their eligibility, a plethora of talent returns for the Bulldogs in 2014.
Running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will be back in the backfield. Talented receivers like Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley, Justin Scott-Wesley and Michael Bennett will once again be downfield targets for quarterback Hutson Mason, who started the final two games of the 2013 season.
In total, the Dawgs return over 5,000 yards of offense and 38 touchdowns from a year ago.
However, several big holes have not yet been filled. For Georgia's prolific weapons to be effective in 2014, the Bulldogs must replace three starters on the offensive line, and that's no short order.
The Bulldogs won't merely miss the leadership of departing seniors Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette, they'll miss their production.
Gates, who played extensively as a tackle and guard, appeared in seven games as a freshman in 2010 and garnered three starts in the process. His playing time increased in 2011 (nine starts) and he was a full-time starter by 2012.
Lee started in seven games as redshirt sophomore in 2011 before suffering a leg injury. He returned to start every game as a junior and 12 games as a senior. He alternated between the left and right guard positions.
Burnette played almost exclusively at the guard position and emerged as a starter as a sophomore. He never relinquished his role as a pillar of the offensive line.
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The End of an Era
Several other players with starting experience—namely John Theus, Kolton Houston and David Andrews—will return along the offensive line in 2014, but any semblance of continuity along the line departs alongside Gates, Lee and Burnette.
After all, all three players were in the starting lineup for 24 of Georgia's last 27 football games. At least two of the three departing linemen started in every game since Georgia's 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the 2010 Liberty Bowl.
When the Dawgs followed a losing season with two back-to-back losses to start the 2011 season, these players were there. When Georgia rallied for 10 consecutive wins and a trip to the SEC Championship Game that same season, these players were there. When the Bulldogs came within a few yards of a BCS National Championship Game bid in 2012, these players were there.
When the team limped through an injury-hampered 2013 campaign, these players were there.
Gates, Lee and Burnette blocked for Washaun Ealey's five-touchdown performance against Kentucky in 2010. They paved the way for Isaiah Crowell's SEC Freshman of the Year campaign in 2011.
They helped turn Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall into the most exciting freshman running back duo in the nation in 2012. Last year, they fought in the trenches as Gurley established himself as one of the best backs in the game.
Aaron Murray may have set practically every individual passing record in the Southeastern Conference's storied history, but he did so behind the blocking of these three linemen.
A.J. Green, Kris Durham, Orson Charles and Marlon Brown have established themselves in the NFL, but prior to that, they caught balls at Georgia thanks to the protection these three linemen provided Murray.
Concerns Moving Forward
Fortunately, Georgia is not hopeless in its rebuild.
David Andrews has started each of Georgia's last 27 games at center and returns to anchor the line in 2014. John Theus, who started all 14 games at right tackle as a true freshman in 2012, is also back. He battled nagging injuries for much of 2013, but started the last seven games of the season.
Houston's career was delayed for three years by a battle with the NCAA over a banned substance in his system. He started six games last year.
In theory, Houston and Theus will occupy the tackle positions while Andrews continues to snap the ball. This leaves only the guard positions left to be filled.
One of those spots could belong to Mark Beard. After announcing his intention to transfer two weeks ago, Beard quickly changed his mind. "Sometimes making a decision and living it out are two different things," Mark Richt told GeorgiaDogs.com. "I'm happy Mark will still be a part of our program."
Beard has previously played at the tackle position, but Georgia's official roster lists him as a guard. In his last year of eligibility, he'll likely play wherever he's needed.
At 6'7" and 307 pounds, rising senior Watts Dantzler seems like the likeliest candidate for the other vacancy on the offensive line. Dantzler has no prior starting experience, but has appeared in 22 games over the course of his three-year career—including all 13 contests last season.
The primary concern for this unit, however, is quality depth. Georgia's roster is crowded with familiar names.
Players like Greg Pyke (redshirt sophomore guard), Brandon Kublanow (sophomore guard/center), Zach DeBell (redshirt junior tackle), Xzavier Ward (redshirt junior tackle) and Hunter Long (redshirt junior center) were all highly regarded recruits.
Unfortunately, these five players combined for just 14 game appearances in 2013.
Three freshmen—Isaiah Wynn, Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards—could compete for playing time, but at this point they are very much unknown quantities.
For offensive line coach Will Friend, the challenge ahead isn't as simple as merely identifying individuals capable of starting in the nation's most physical conference. That's only the first part of his job.
The second—and arguably more difficult—assignment is building chemistry within the unit.
Any lack of cohesion will have a drastic impact on the Bulldog offense. A lack of running lanes could make Gurley's job all the more difficult. Poor protection will limit Mason's ability to connect with his talented downfield playmakers.
If Georgia fails to develop an effective offensive line unit, this offense could stall out before it even starts.
In 2014, the key to securing the offensive line is repetition for a defined unit. "I like the fact that the the numbers we have that we'll be able to carry some competition and guys will have to worry about performing throughout the season," Friend told Seth Emerson of The Telegraph last year.
This year, the luxury of numbers is nonexistent and Georgia must focus on identifying the unit that is best-equipped to play together. Any lineup, in other words, is better than no lineup.
Friend has talent at his disposal and some returning experience, but he still has his work cut out for him.
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