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Post Wynn wins the Senior Bowl

Saturday January 27, 2018

Think back to about a year ago. Coming off a lackluster 2016 season, one of Georgia’s biggest questions was at offensive line. The line underperformed in 2016 and lost several starters. One of those starters was a stopgap left tackle, and the fact that Georgia’s best option at that key position was a graduate transfer from Rhode Island (with its implied “of all places”) summed up not only the state of the 2016 line but also the level of talent available to the new staff. Not only would line coach Sam Pittman have to piece together functional lines with the current roster, he’d also have a big replenishment job ahead in recruiting.

Georgia began to take care of that recruiting imperative with the 2017 class. Georgia landed three of the nation’s top 20 linemen, and analysts concluded that “no position group will receive a bigger upgrade from this (2017) class than the offensive line.” The class had depth and quality. Perhaps most important was the best collection of incoming tackles Georgia had seen in recent memory. Two of the top three freshman signees were tackles, and another signee was the #2 junior college prospect at tackle. Many, including myself, expected Georgia’s 2017 starting line to include two of these three tackles.

So when Isaiah Wynn all but declared himself the starting left tackle after the 2017 spring practice, it wasn’t taken very seriously. Wynn had been a guard on that 2016 line and at 6’2″ was several inches shorter than a prototypical tackle. It’s not that Wynn didn’t have experience at tackle. The 2015 Florida game caused many changes in the program, and an immediate reshuffle of the offensive line was among them. Wynn finished the 2015 season at left tackle (all games won by Georgia, by the way) but was moved back inside when Pittman arrived with Kirby Smart. Wynn did play at left tackle in Georgia’s Liberty Bowl win, but Georgia was dealing with an injury to the starter. Wynn was a candidate at tackle for 2017 and would start out there during spring, but the assumption was that he was there as a placeholder until one of the newcomers took over.

We know how assumptions work out. 2017 held three big surprises at the tackle position: 1) the Isaiah who became an anchor at left tackle was Wynn and not Wilson, 2) not only did Wilson and JUCO D’Marcus Hayes not claim a starting job, both redshirted in 2017, and 3) the one freshman from this class who did earn a starting job was Andrew Thomas – perhaps the least heralded of the three incoming tackles (though as a 4* and U.S. Army All-American certainly no slouch). If you had predicted those three outcomes after Signing Day, many fans (at least those who didn’t laugh in your face), would have wondered why this touted group of 2017 OL signees turned out to be such a bust.

The 2017 season of course had little to do with any shortcomings of the signing class. Wynn turned out to be an anchor. Thomas picked up the system quickly and stood out as early as preseason practice. Georgia was able to draw on its depth (imagine that!) and promote Ben Cleveland at guard. Wilson struggled with acclimation, and Georgia’s top guard signee Netori Johnson had a more serious physical issue to overcome. Both should be very much in the mix going forward. With another impressive class of linemen on the way in 2018, there will be no shortage of depth or competition for playing time.

But back to Wynn. He’s getting noticed this week at practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl. He was named the top offensive lineman of the week and is drawing praise and attention from people in a position to earn him quite a high draft pick and a large rookie contract.

Sure enough, Wynn is back at guard this week. The NFL has enough guys at the “right” size to play tackle to take a flyer on someone like Wynn. He’s proving in Senior Bowl practice that he’ll do just fine back on the inside. But for Georgia he was just what the Dawgs needed at left tackle. He was a big reason why Georgia’s prolific running game took off and also a key to Jake Fromm’s progress and success as a true freshman quarterback.

(Since I began this post talking about 2016, how about this thought exercise? Wynn held his own at tackle at the end of 2015 as Georgia won its last five with a run-focused offense. Tyler Catalina struggled at tackle for Georgia, but he’s made an NFL active roster as a guard. Would the 2016 line have fared better had Wynn and Catalina exchanged positions? Was that a rare mistake by Pittman? Certainly there were adjustments to the new staff in 2016, and Pittman had to make the best out of the roster he had. It’s just one of those hypothetical what-ifs that fans have the luxury of asking.)

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