Georgia's offense this past football season featured two 1,000-yard rushers and a true freshman quarterback who ranked among the nation's 10 most efficient passers.
Yet how many highlights involving the tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel or the routinely poised Jake Fromm would have been possible without a significantly improved offensive line?
The Bulldogs began this past season with only two returning starters up front, and those two veterans were working at different positions from the year before. With the revamped lineup in the trenches, Georgia averaged 435.3 yards and 35.4 points per game on its way to the Southeastern Conference championship and an appearance in the national-title contest one season after averaging 384.7 yards and 24.5 points with three senior linemen.
"I know it's not a great answer, but our guys just worked really hard," offensive line coach Sam Pittman said in Atlanta before the Bulldogs dropped a 26-23 overtime thriller to Alabama. "We had good leadership and became more physical, and they're a lot more confident than they were. It's hard to be confident when you're getting your butt kicked."facebook
Georgia had been erratic at best in 2016, when Pittman, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and head coach Kirby Smart were in their first season in Athens in their respective roles. The Bulldogs managed just 75 rushing yards in a 17-16 home loss to Vanderbilt, and they were held to 21 in a 24-10 loss to Florida in Jacksonville.
Isaiah Wynn and Lamont Gaillard had been the starting guards in 2016, but Wynn was moved from left guard to left tackle last year despite being undersized at 6-foot-2 and 302 pounds. Gaillard was shifted to center, with Kendall Baker replacing Wynn at left guard and true freshman Andrew Thomas earning the starting spot at right tackle.
Solomon Kindley started at right guard until the middle of November, when Ben Cleveland took over that spot.
The SEC was overrun this past season with 6-5 left tackles, including the likes of Alabama's Jonah Williams, Auburn's Austin Golson and Mississippi State's Martinas Rankin. Standout Tennessee freshman Trey Smith played at 6-6 and 320 pounds, but Wynn more than held his own at 6-2 and could, according a mock draft Monday night on NFL.com, get picked late in the first round of April's NFL draft.
"Isaiah Wynn meant everything to our offensive line," Pittman said. "If you look at him last year to this year, it's night and day. He gained 20 pounds, and he gained way more than that in confidence. He may only be 6-2, but he's good football player — make that a really good football player. He wasn't as a junior, and very rarely do you see a player who wasn't great as a junior turn into a wonderful player as a senior.
"That usually doesn't happen, but he got stronger and bought into the techniques. Once he got confident, he poured over everybody else."
Georgia's winning ways began with triumphs over Appalachian State, Notre Dame and Samford, but the improved offensive line really became evident when the Bulldogs won their first five SEC games by 25 or more points. In a dominating four-game stretch, Georgia rushed for 294 yards and 5.3 yards per carry at Tennessee, 423 and 7.8 at Vanderbilt, 370 and 7.3 against Missouri and 292 and 8.3 against Florida.
The Bulldogs went to Auburn on Nov. 11 ranked No. 1 in the playoff rankings, but that's where the offensive line suffered its lone debacle of the season. Fromm was sacked four times in the 40-17 loss, and the running game netted just 46 yards and 1.4 yards per carry.
"We got knocked out the first time we played Auburn," Pittman said. "It wasn't a punch. It was a Muhammad Ali blow. The next time we played them, I think we had gained some confidence. We knew we could do it, but we just had some things we had to clean up."
The week after the setback at Auburn was when Cleveland replaced Kindley at right guard. Georgia rebounded from the loss with a 42-13 victory over Kentucky and a 38-7 win at Georgia Tech.
That set the stage for a rematch against Auburn in the SEC title game, which the Bulldogs won 28-7 and racked up 238 rushing yards, averaging 5.8 per carry.
"Inserting Ben Cleveland really helped us," said Pittman, who helped Georgia sign the nation's top offensive line class last year and again in last month's early signing period. "He's a big, physical force in there, and he's one of those guys that I think is a difference-maker. He's a guy we can use to be a little bit of a battering ram."
Georgia's line may have enjoyed its finest hours in the program's first Rose Bowl trip in 75 seasons. Matched up against an Oklahoma offense headed by quarterback Baker Mayfield on New Year's Day, the Bulldogs fell behind 31-14 but stayed with a running game that overwhelmed the Sooners.
Michel rushed for 181 yards, including a 27-yard touchdown run that clinched the 54-48 marathon win in double-overtime, while Chubb added 145. The two combined for five touchdowns, and each averaged more than 10 yards a carry.
It was a scene that could not have been envisioned in August, when the Bulldogs were working simply to find their best five at a position area that was widely viewed as the team's weak link. By season's end, however, Pittman was full of praise for a group that he believes had an unquestioned central figure.
"I can't say enough about Isaiah Wynn," Pittman said. "He has been our best practice player, and he's been such a good leader."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.