The difference between really good teams and average teams are how well you finish. Do you make plays, big plays, at the end of the game? That’s going to define us, really I think.
– Mark Richt, September 2011
For all of the gains made during the 2011 season, the whole point of the exercise and the entire reason for revamping the conditioning program could be summarized by the concept of “finishing.” Using that concept as a rubric, the final game showed that Georgia hadn’t mastered what it set out to focus on during the offseason. The game also showed that all areas of the team contributed to the problems in finishing. Offense, defense, special teams, and coaching all had roles in the evaporation of a 16-point halftime lead.
All of that is not to say that the focus on “finishing” was a failure when you zoom out and look at the season as a whole. Georgia was able to close out a good many games in 2011, and it’s a large part of why they won 10 games, won in Jacksonville, and won the East. We can conclude that the process is, at best, incomplete. That led to disappointment against better competition in 2011. If you want a silver lining, we shouldn’t have to worry about complacency heading into 2012 – all of that wasn’t going to be undone in one year, was it?
If there was a common thread among the teams that gave Georgia its four losses and biggest problems closing out games in 2011, it was superior defensive line play. Boise’s line is one of the best in the nation. South Carolina had a disruptive front that made game-changing plays. LSU…well. Michigan State offered one last test against a top defensive front. Worthy and Gholston were as good as it gets. In fact, Georgia’s offense against MSU reminded me a lot of the Boise game. You had a few big plays go for scores, but by and large it was a frustrating day getting anything going.
A lot of people asked where the tight ends were against Michigan State. Orson Charles had a single, insignificant reception. The (lack of) production from that position is a byproduct of the offensive line. Georgia couldn’t block MSU with five linemen plus a running back, so the tight end was more often than not a sixth offensive lineman. Watch Murray’s long touchdown pass to King: as the pocket moved right, Charles was protecting the backside of the play.
The Bulldog offensive line will and should receive a lot of scrutiny in the offseason. Georgia couldn’t stand up to the best defensive fronts it faced in 2011, and that’s a large part of what separates them from a higher class of teams. I don’t say that as an indictment of what Coach Friend did in 2011. He put together a decent line with what he had available, and it’s worth a closer look to see why he’ll have another big challenge in 2012.
To begin with, you had three senior starters. Not a bad start. Two of them were guards playing out of position at tackle. One of those was a guy who had sat out 2010 while training to play on the defensive line. Georgia’s other two starters, both guards, were relatively inexperienced. They had a single reserve, Dallas Lee, who could be counted on for significant playing time, and Lee was lost after the Florida game. All of that was good enough for much of the year, but it wasn’t when asked to stop or push high quality defensive lines.
Remove the three seniors, and you see why this is perhaps the central storyline heading into 2012. Georgia’s returning starters at guard are fair but won’t be preseason all-conference mentions. Save Lee, there won’t be much returning experience. Pencil David Andrews in at center. That leaves tackle.
Against elite defensive lines, you need quality tackles to deal with the speed and athleticism of the ends. If you think about it, the Dawgs haven’t really had a true left tackle in top form since Sturdivant in 2007. Georgia’s 2011 tackles were converted guards. The 2012 tackles – whoever they end up being – will be inexperienced. The Dawgs recently got a commitment from a very nice JUCO lineman, Mark Beard. Beard plays guard, but he’s told recruiting services that Georgia is interested in him as a possible tackle. Going to the JUCO well for another guard-turned-tackle might be an insight into the lack of depth at the position. If Long and Danztler aren’t ready to step in, the Dawgs might even have to turn to a true freshman like John Theus. The coaches are also hard after top tackle prospects Brandon Greene and Avery Young.
Georgia’s going to have a lot in their favor in 2012. Schedule, defense, experienced QB, nice receivers, and maybe even some quality depth at tailback. But without that line, they’re going to run into many of the same struggles against the type of team they’d likely meet in the postseason. It’ll be October before the 2012 Dawgs have to face their first strong test up front, at South Carolina. Before then, there’s an awful lot of work to do to develop a unit that can push the Dawgs past the defensive lines of the best teams on the schedule.