Opportunity abounds as O-line rebuilds

If anyone is capable of filling the colosall shoes of departed senior center Ben Jones, David Andrews (61) believes he is the O-lineman to do it. Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.com

ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps no personnel group at Georgia will be watched more closely in the 2012 season than the Bulldogs’ offensive line, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Perhaps the scrutiny will create a greater sense of accountability within the large group of linemen competing for playing time.

“There’s a lot of pressure on us, but I think with a lot of pressure, it creates opportunity,” sophomore Watts Dantzler said after Tuesday’s first spring practice. “So I know a lot of guys, we’re looking at the situation like we’re excited about it and we’re going to come to work and find a group of guys.”

It’s extremely preliminary, but Dantzler was among the first-team linemen when the Bulldogs opened practice. He occupied the right tackle spot, with Chris Burnette at left guard, David Andrews at center, Kolton Houston at left guard and Kenarious Gates at left tackle.

It would be a mistake to expect those players to be locked into those spots -- or even those positions. Coach Mark Richt said that as many as nine players could contribute on the rebuilding line this fall, and most of those players are capable of helping at multiple positions.

“With as many people as we have competing for positions, one day you might be in a position and one day you might be in another position,” said Austin Long, who initially lined up behind Dantzler at right tackle but can also play left tackle.

“You do not have a for-sure job yet and I think that competition motivates people to work harder, play harder, study film harder. And that’s going to bring out the best five, plus maybe we’ll have more -- seven, eight, nine -- and I think that makes us better offensive linemen.”

The Bulldogs have three large holes to fill after losing center Ben Jones and tackle Cordy Glenn -- both four-year starters -- and tackle Justin Anderson from last season’s starting unit. The tackle spots will obviously feature significant competition -- both in the spring and, after key signee John Theus arrives on campus, in preseason practices -- but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said replacing Jones, the team captain, at center will be an even bigger concern.

Richt echoed those thoughts after Tuesday’s practice, noting that this will be a key time for Andrews, a sophomore, to prove he can handle the job.

“Right now David’s our No. 1 center and has been working extremely hard,” Richt said. “I saw him in the office a bunch, just trying to learn. I know Ben spent a lot of time with him as a matter of fact, every chance he got, just to help him understand all the calls and all the things that have to be done at that position.

“We do need to solidify our center position because, you know, Ben held it down for four years straight and kind of spoiled us a little bit.”

For his part, Andrews understands the importance that the upcoming practices will have on his prospects in the 2012 season. He appeared in 10 games as a reserve in 2011, but never under the pressing circumstances that he would face should he earn a starting job.

“I know there’s a little more expectations,” Andrews said. “I’ve got big shoes to fill and I’m ready, and I’m just going to go out there in the 14 practices we have plus G-Day and whatever we have in August … I can handle it and I can step up and take it.”

That seems to be the attitude of most of the Bulldogs’ linemen. Without longtime starters Glenn and Jones -- and with only three players who have started at all in Gates, Burnette and Dallas Lee -- they realize the group has plenty of opportunity to go around.

It provides a fresh start of sorts, as offensive line coach Will Friend experiments with different combinations and places players in different positions as he attempts to establish a pecking order.

“We’re finding a group that can jell together pretty well and just find the best five that can play,” Dantzler said. “If it’s the best six or seven, we’ll rotate. Coach Friend’s giving everybody an equal chance because a lot of us are at the same skill level. We’ve just got to see who can play better in certain situations.”