2020 Georgia Football Primer: New offensive line coach Matt Luke tasked with replacing three starters

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2020 Georgia Football Primer: New offensive line coach Matt Luke tasked with replacing three starters

UGA assistant head and offensive line coach Matt Luke | Georgia vs. Baylor Sugar Bowl | New Orleans, LA | Wednesday, January 01, 2020
UGA assistant head and offensive line coach Matt Luke | Georgia vs. Baylor Sugar Bowl | New Orleans, LA | Wednesday, January 01, 2020

IMPORTANT UPDATE REGARDING UGA FOOTBALL’S SPRING PRACTICE:

Friday, March 13, 2020, 4:00 p.m. ET: The SEC announced that all organized team activities, including competitions, team, and individual practices, meetings, and other organized gatherings, will be suspended through April 15th. This includes spring football practices, scrimmages, and games.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020, 3:00 p.m. ET: The SEC has announced all regular-season conference and non-conference competitions are cancelled for the remainder of the 2019-20 athletic year This includes all spring football games and remaining SEC championship events, due to continuing developments related to the coronavirus.

Changes to Georgia’s offensive line began at the end of last season. Sam Pittman, who had been part of Kirby Smart’s coaching staff since he took over the program as head coach in December of 2015, left his assistant and offensive line coaching position with the Bulldogs to take over as head coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks program the day after the 2019 SEC Championship Game on Sunday, December 8, 2019. At the time, Georgia still had a Sugar Bowl to play as well as Early Signing Day fast approaching. Would Kirby and the University move quickly to replace Pittman?

It didn’t take long for the answer to that question to be revealed as within approximately 48 hours of Pittman’s departure, UGA hired former Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke. It didn’t Luke long to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail, and he was able to hold together the Bulldogs’ 2020 offensive line class with the exception of Joshua Braun. Georgia signed a total of 7 o-lineman between Early Signing Day in December and National Signing Day in February including Austin Blaske, Broderick Jones, Cameron Kinnie, Chad Lindberg, Tate Ratledge, Sedrick Van Pran, and Devin Willock, but Dawg fans will have to wait till summer and Fall Camp in August as none of those seven are early enrollees.

But a new position coach and new signees are not the only changes to the 2020 offensive line unit for UGA.

Three offensive linemen decided to forego their final year of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft. Coach Luke will have to replace a three-year starter in Andrew Thomas who started at right tackle for the Bulldogs in 2017 and then moved to and started at left tackle for 2018 and 2019. Coach Luke will also have to replace another offensive tackle, Isaiah Wilson, who started the past two seasons at right tackle. Also gone from the 2019 o-line is Solomon Kindley at left guard. However, we saw a glimpse of what the 2020 o-line could potentially be like in the Sugar Bowl back on January 1st versus Baylor.

Both Thomas and Wilson sat out the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft and right guard Ben Cleveland was ruled academically ineligible. In place of Wilson Jamaree Salyer started at right tackle, and Cade Mays started at left tackle in place of Thomas. For Cleveland, Warren Ericson started at right guard while Kindley decided to play in the bowl game even though he had declared to enter the Draft. Trey Hill started at center all season for Georgia including the conference championship game and did so once again in the bowl game. In addition, Warren McClendon, Xavier Truss, and Clay Webb also got playing time and experience in the bowl game.

The Georgia offensive line sizes up the Baylor d-line near the end zone | Sugar Bowl Game | New Orleans, LA | Wednesday, January 01, 2020
The Georgia offensive line sizes up the Baylor d-line near the end zone | Sugar Bowl Game | New Orleans, LA | Wednesday, January 01, 2020

So long story short, who is back and will be competing this season?

Although many fans and media expected the versatile Cade Mays to compete for either a start at one of the guard or tackle spots, he won’t be a player we will be seeing back in a red and black uniform this spring or fall. Mays entered the NCAA Transfer Portal after the bowl game and ended up transferring to Tennessee

Although Ben Cleveland was academically ineligible for the Sugar Bowl, he is expected to remedy that status during spring semester and return for his fifth-year senior season with the Bulldogs.

But one o-linemen who missed a large portion of the 2019 season should be back and good to go, Justin Shaffer.

Justin Shaffer (54) looks on during pregame warmups before the Georgia Tech game on Saturday, November 30, 2019
Justin Shaffer (54) looks on during pregame warmups before the Georgia Tech game on Saturday, November 30, 2019

Shaffer suffered a neck injury in the South Carolina game back on October 12th that would end up keeping the junior out the rest of the year including the SEC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl. But in January, a little over a couple of weeks after the Sugar Bowl game, Shaffer revealed he had some very good news for Dawg Nation via his Twitter account.

The 6-foot-4 and 330 lbs senior from Ellenwood, GA took over at left guard in place of a banged-up Kindley in the fourth game of the year versus Notre Dame, he was named the starter for the road game versus Tennessee as well as earning a start versus South Carolina before his injury in that game. In three seasons, Shaffer has played in 34 games for Georgia and will be looking to compete to start at one of the offensive guard spots this season, being a strong contender and favorite for left guard.

Along with Shaffer, Jamaree Salyer returns as a junior who has played in 26 games, starting two, since signing with the Bulldogs out of Pace Academy as part of UGA’s 2018 recruiting class. He was Wilson’s backup for most of the last year at right tackle; so, Salyer is a very strong contender to take one of the offensive tackle spots in 2020.

Trey Hill returns as a 6-foot-4 and 330 lbs junior with a lot of experience under his belt, playing in 28 games, starting the last 18 at center for Georgia since signing with the Bulldogs in 2018 out of Houston County High School. It will be interesting to see if Hill stays at center for 2020 or slides over to play at one of the guard spots.

Jamaree Salyer (69) and Trey Hill (55) | Georgia at Auburn - Third Quarter | November 16, 2019
Jamaree Salyer (69) and Trey Hill (55) | Georgia at Auburn – Third Quarter | November 16, 2019

Warren Ericson returns for 2020 as a 6-foot-4 and 305 lbs redshirt sophomore where he played in six games for Georgia in 2019 seeing playing time versus Murray State, Arkansas State, Tennessee, Missouri, Georgia Tech before earning the start at right guard in the Sugar Bowl Game versus Baylor. Regardless of whether Cleveland is eligible to compete and practice this spring, expect to see Ericson taking a number of snaps at right guard and also getting in work at center.

Both Warren McClendon and Xavier Truss are both strong contenders for the remaining two spots on the offensive line at guard and tackle respectively heading into spring practice. McClendon enters 2020 as a 6-foot-4 and 320 lbs redshirt freshman having playing in four games last season. In addition to the Sugar Bowl game versus Baylor, McClendon saw action versus Murray State, Missouri, and Georgia Tech in 2019. Fans should expect to see him get a lot of snaps and playing time this season, competing at guard and tackle.

Like McClendon, the 6-foot-7 and 330 lbs Truss is a redshirt freshman who saw action in four games last season… Murray State, Arkansas State, Georgia Tech, and the Sugar Bowl game. For spring, don’t be surprised to Truss at right tackle opposite of Salyer

This will be 6-foot-3 and 290 lbs redshirt freshman Clay Webb’s second spring practice even though he signed with UGA just last year as part of the Bulldogs 2019 recruiting class. Webb was a mid-year or early enrollee last January, and he earned the co-winner of Offensive Scout Team Player of the Year award. Webb also saw playing time versus Murray State and Georgia Tech last season. The former five-star prospect out of Oxford, Alabama will be competing at guard and center.

Owen Condon will be coming into spring as a 6-foot-7 and 310 lbs redshirt sophomore having signed with the Bulldogs as part of UGA’s 2018 recruiting class out of Bishop McGuinness High School in Oklahoma City, OK. Like Shaffer, Condon is coming off a 2019 season where he spent a good portion of it recovering from injuries.

And fans should not be surprised to see a number of walk-ons and preferred walk-on student-athletes taking snaps along the offensive line with the scholarship players in practice.

Daniel Gothard (57) | Georgia vs. Georgia Tech - Pregame | November 30, 2019
Daniel Gothard (57) | Georgia vs. Georgia Tech – Pregame | November 30, 2019

One name to watch for is 6-foot-6 and 327 lbs fifth-year senior Daniel Gothard, who signed with Georgia in 2016 as a preferred walk-on out of Dunwoody High School. He has played in three games and earned playing time on the Black Team in last year’s G-Day spring game.

The Georgia coaching staff could also ask Netori Johnson to move back to the offensive side of the ball from d-line to help out with depth during practice if needed. Johnson is a 6-foot-4 and 320 lbs junior who signed as an o-lineman with the Bulldogs out of Cedar Grove High School in 2017. After redshirting in 2017, Netori switched to the defensive line in 2018 after the Florida game.

Up next, we take a look at the running backs on Thursday.

2020 Georgia Football Primer Series:

I. Quarterbacks: Bulldogs look for a new field general under center

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The University of Georgia 1991-1994. Lanier Tech 2009-2012. Writer and graphic artist covering UGA athletics, college football, and recruiting. Peach cobbler fears me!