ATHENS — One year ago, Georgia had reason to worry about opening the season with three freshmen on its offensive line, but at least coach Mark Richt could look forward to having a strong returning nucleus in 2008.
Not so fast.
Georgia has had to retool its offensive line again. Sophomore left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, was lost to a season-ending knee injury Aug. 11. Richt suspended another sophomore, guard Clint Boling, for Saturday’s opener against Georgia Southern following an alcohol-related arrest in the spring.
Factor in the task of replacing two 2007 senior starters, and suddenly the line is all-new again, leaving Richt with some old reasons to worry.
“That’s a huge concern, a huge concern, yes,” Richt said.
Last year’s freshmen joined two seniors, center Fernando Velasco and right tackle Chester Adams, and that 2007 group had the advantage of continuity.
“We didn’t have many last year, but those guys stayed together pretty much through the fall camp and almost through the entire season,” Richt said. “We’ve been juggling more in this camp than we did throughout all of last season on the offensive line.”
The one lone returning starter, Jefferson High graduate Chris Davis, has moved from guard to center, so Georgia is opening the season with five linemen who have never started at their current positions.
There are no seniors on the unit, which includes a converted defensive lineman, Kiante Tripp.
The new starting five includes a freshman, right guard Cordy Glenn. Left guard Vince Vance is the only junior. Tripp, who has replaced Sturdivant at left tackle, right tackle Josh Davis and Chris Davis are sophomores.
Richt said he plans to play two freshmen, center Ben Jones and tackle Justin Anderson, in backup roles.
That’s a lot of new faces for any line, especially a unit that is asked to helped quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno lead Georgia to a national championship.
Vance says the cross-training practices of offensive line coach Stacy Searels have helped the unit to adjust.
For example, Chris Davis played guard last season, but he was the center on the second-team offense.
“The only reason why I feel we’ll be fine, Coach Searels since day one has said you’re more valuable if you can play more than one position,” Vance said. “No one has just played one position. We’ve always switched out and rotated things around.
“I know I can play right guard or right tackle anytime coach needed me to. I know Chris can play left guard and center. I know Josh played tackle and guard. It makes it easier for us.”
Stafford said there was despair when Sturdivant was injured.
“At the moment yeah, he’s such a good player and a guy we can count on,” Stafford said.
Then the 6-foot-5, 293-pound Sturdivant was replaced with the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Tripp.
“I think we’re going to step up and be just fine,” Stafford said. “Kiante is going to do a great job for us. They’re similar, really, both really athletic guys. It’s something that definitely set us back at the moment but something that could be overcome.”
If the line withstands the loss of Sturdivant, the offense should be strong. Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, tight end Tripp Chandler, Moreno and Stafford return from a team which capped an 11-2 season with a 41-10 win over Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. It was Georgia’s sixth game scoring more than 40 points.
Stafford says the offense enters the season with confidence, though the junior quarterback wouldn’t promise 40 points against Georgia Southern.
“I don’t know if you can put a number on it, but I think we can play well with these guys,” Stafford said. “I think we can play well enough to win. We just have to keep working and keep becoming a group, tighter and tighter.
“Once it all jells to be a really tight group, it could be really good.”