Depth changes perception

ATHENS, Ga. -- In preparing for his third season as a member of Georgia's football team, David Andrews has been experiencing a new sensation lately. The rising junior center actually is benefiting from the occasional chance to take off for a rep or two in practice.

"I'm out there right now and thinking, 'Wow, I'm getting a little break in individual [drills]' -- things that we didn't get, these little luxuries, breaks in individuals like we do now," said Andrews, who started all 14 games last season. "So it's weird seeing that many guys out there."

It's a sign of a distinct change for Georgia's offensive line, where depth was often a major issue in recent seasons. Not only do the Bulldogs return all five line starters from a season ago, but they also have every key reserve back. Several could be in line for increased playing time this fall.

"We looked at our lineup some, and we felt like some guys were coming on late in the year in Mark Beard and Austin Long, who deserve some playing time, and they'll be competing for starting jobs this spring, along with hopefully Watts Dantzler getting in the mix, a guy like Greg Pyke, [who] we redshirted," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

"These are guys that we've got to see if they're ready to play and ready to be contributors to this offense. Like I say all the time, if they're one of the top five, then they're going to play. We'd like to have more than five and create some depth there."

This time a year ago, the Bulldogs didn't even have a strong starting five. Georgia lost three senior starters: center Ben Jones and tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson (all were drafted). Most of their backups -- guys such as Andrews, Dantzler and junior college transfer Beard -- had little to no experience as they started spring practice against a veteran defense that ranked among the nation's best in 2011.

And when spring drills started, they looked every bit like the unpolished and overwhelmed group of newcomers they were.

"That first week, we've mentioned it many times, but between myself and Coach Bobo and [offensive line coach Will] Friend, we needed some therapy there for a little while," Georgia coach Mark Richt recalled. "It just started out so poorly, and we're thinking, 'Man, we are really in for a long year.'"

A spring and summer full of hard work allowed the line to become a competent group by the time the 2012 season arrived. They were not a dominant group, but they performed well enough for the Bulldogs to have the highest-scoring offense in school history.

And now they return with three of the starters -- Andrews, Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and John Theus -- having started all 14 games a year ago, while right guard Chris Burnette started 12 of 14. Add in Beard, who started at left tackle in the two games Burnette missed with injury, plus a growing group of reserves who could enter the mix for playing time, and this could be one of the deepest groups of offensive linemen on Georgia's roster since Richt became the Bulldogs' coach in 2001.

Even with Burnette out for the entire spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, and Theus out for now following foot surgery, Friend still has a sizable group.

"We've just got tons of guys that can play multiple positions," Andrews said. "We can almost form three-deep offensive lines now, which is something we haven't been able to do in the past. With two guys out, especially, that's a good bit of linemen. So we definitely have a lot of depth."

Identifying which players will become active members of Friend's in-game rotation is a more difficult proposition. Beard and Long worked their way into considerable playing time by the end of 2012, but it's more difficult to know what to expect for Dantzler or Pyke. Same with Xzavier Ward, Zach DeBell and Hunter Long, who haven't been much of a factor so far, and Kolton Houston, whose NCAA eligibility issues have prevented him from playing to this point.

With that group of possible contributors, plus the four incoming freshmen who signed with the Bulldogs in the 2013 recruiting class, Georgia's linemen believe they are collectively in a far superior position compared to where they were last spring.

"I think that's going to help down the road throughout the season," Austin Long said. "We had some of that last year, people stepping up when guys had little injuries. I think that definitely helps, having guys that know what to do and can step in for somebody and play."

In fact, if another one or two of the reserves stake a claim on increased playing time, starters like Andrews might be afforded more than breathers in practice. They might be able to take off an occasional series in the heat of a game.

"I think the rotation can be very deep this year, which helps us out," Andrews said. "It'll keep guys fresh, and as we're pounding the ball, if somebody gets tired or someone gets hurt, we don't miss a beat when someone else comes in. That's going to be a big key, and I think that's going to help us out a lot this year."