College Football’s Best 2018 Offensive Lines: Georgia Bulldogs

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Throughout the remainder of the off-season, I will be previewing the best returning offensive line units in college football. These previews will give us the opportunity to scout some of the top offensive line prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft, while also highlighting those whose names we will likely see in 2020 and beyond.

When a team finds success on the ground, the first thing people usually point at is the guy carrying the football. He is the most accessible and most viewed player on the screen for the most part and casual fans often don’t delve any deeper than what they can see on the surface.

The next tier of fans will tell you that one must point to the running back and the offensive line together, noting that they achieved their accolades in a combined effort. However, what happens when you have not one, but two, and maybe even three superstar running backs in your stable? It means there’s a lot more people to associate with the success of the run game before someone finally goes, “Wait a tick…I think we’re forgetting about something…”

This often was the case for the Georgia Bulldogs and their productive front five. Prior to delving into the top returning units, the only player I was 100 percent certain of on this line was Isaiah Wynn and that was mostly tied to his status as a draft-darling and first-round selection in the recent NFL Draft.

But do not get it twisted. Wynn was the very best on a talented line still chalk-full of talent that will also grace NFL sidelines in the future. Whether it’s their young and talented replacement for Wynn at left tackle, an underappreciated player at the pivot, or a guard prospect not getting a ton of early buzz, you can expect a few of these guys to have their names called come 2019 and 2020.

And I mean, it doesn’t hurt when your backs can do this:

(Lineup is based off of Phil Steele’s 2018 College Football Preview)

Left Tackle: Andrew Thomas / 6’5 320lbs. / Sophomore

The massive true sophomore out of Lithonia, GA and Pace Academy came to Athens after a sparkling prep career. As a senior in high school, Thomas was a four-star prospect and the #7-rated offensive tackle in the country by ESPN and was a U.S. Army All-American selection.

It didn’t take long for Thomas to crack the starting lineup, as he was given first-team duties early on in camp in year one. As a true freshman, he started all 15 games at right tackle and was a driving force behind the team’s late-season success. By season’s end, Thomas was named to the ESPN Freshman All-American Team.

As a prospect who is likely to declare for the draft in 2020, Thomas has the potential to be a first-round pick and, barring any setbacks, a potential top-10 pick. As a true sophomore, he already possesses the prototypical size for an NFL left tackle at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds. At this point in time, he shouldn’t have to gain anymore mass and can simply work at becoming a better athlete and player at his size.

Thomas currently exhibits excellent footwork and overall fundamentals for the position, which likely played a large role in how he secured the right tackle job so early in his career. He rarely over sets and you’d be hard pressed to ever see him whiff or miss an assignment. He could use some fine-tuning to make his initial punch and hand placement more consistent but he is so large and strong that his hands can be outside and he is still able to settle down wily edge rushers.

Left Guard: Kendall Baker / 6’6 305lbs. / Senior

Baker joins center Lamont Gaillard as the only two seniors on the offensive line, with Gaillard being the more experienced. Last year was Baker’s first season as a full-time starter in which he started all 14 games following the season-opener. Baker was also one of two offensive players awarded the “Up Front” award given at the team’s postseason awards gala.

In a weird twist, Baker is also somehow the lightest player across the offensive line at 305 pounds. His 6-foot-6 frame is fairly lean and leaves plenty of room for added mass, which will likely be a requirement if he makes it at the next level. His potential forecast for the NFL also may be the cloudiest of the group. He exhibits adequate bulk and strength for the next level but lacks a refinement to his game that you would want to see in a prospect in his final years of eligibility.

Baker’s stance is a little high and makes me think he might be fairly tight in the hips. He has some issues with leaning too far over his toes, which allows defenders to take advantage of him with push-pull moves. He also does have ton of power at the point of attack. One redeeming factor in his game, however, is how aggressive he plays with his hands. His initial punch in pass protection jumps out with its’ velocity and ferociousness. If he can shore up some of the fundamentals and increase his flexibility in and out of the hole, we might have ourselves another pro player here on the UGA line.

Center: Lamont Gaillard / 6’2 308lbs. / Senior

As the most experienced member of the UGA offensive line, Gaillard will be a driving force behind another year where the Bulldogs are simply reloading at the running back position with another pair of top-three running back prospects.

A true senior from North Fayetteville, NC, Gaillard may be considered undersized for the position, especially at the next level, but that hasn’t stopped him from being one of the best in the country at the pivot. He has started all 28 games over the last two seasons while also taking home the “Own the Trenches” award (most impressive linemen) following 2017 spring practices. This accolade is even more impressive when you take into account first-round draft pick Isaiah Wynn was still with the team at the time.

The center position in the NFL has a ton of room-for-error in terms of size variance. Players can be successful without having to meet certain requirements for hand size, height, weight, etc., and Gaillard looks to prove any doubters wrong in the same way Wynn proved to everyone that you can still be an elite left tackle without being 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6.

Right Guard: Ben Cleveland / 6’6 340lbs. / Redshirt Sophomore

Of all the UGA offensive linemen, Cleveland might be the least known among the five, but that shouldn’t stop you from paying close attention.

The Toccoa, GA native graduated high school in January of 2016 so he could enroll early at Georgia and start competing during spring practices. After redshirting during the 2016 season, Cleveland was able to play in all 15 games last year, starting the last five at right guard. Heading into the 2018 season, he should be the unquestioned starter after helping the team during their late-season win streak en route to a spot in the CFP National Championship game.

One of the biggest traits of Cleveland’s game is how fluidly he moves for someone that tips the scales near 340 pounds. Usually those of his stature find themselves on the outside where they can utilize their size and length to get in the way of edge rushers but, luckily, the Bulldogs have some pretty great tackles which allows #74 to do his thing on the inside.

Cleveland also possesses the coveted mindset of wanting to finish blocks in order to demoralize his opponent’s morale over the course of the competition. That’s one of the few characteristics that almost always translates to the next level and it’s also something that can’t be coached. A player has it or they don’t.

Don’t be surprised to see Cleveland’s potential draft stock rise throughout the season and the subsequent months leading up to the draft.

Right Tackle: Isaiah Wilson / 6’7 345lbs. / Redshirt Freshman

Wilson is unfortunately the only player on this list I was unable to acquire film on. He is coming off his initial redshirt season at UGA and looks to become another studly, multi-year starter at tackle for the Bulldogs. At 6-foot-7 inches tall and 345 pounds, Wilson is already the largest member of the starting five and will likely be the biggest pain to get around come gametime.

Coming out of Poly Prep Country Day High School in Brooklyn, New York, Wilson was a Parade Magazine Honorable Mention All-American, a member of the 2017 Under Armour All-American Squad, and named NYC’s “Mr. Football.” ESPN also rated him as a 5-star prospect and the #2 OT prospect in the entire country.

When asked about Wilson’s growth during his redshirt year, offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Jim Chaney said, “he’s done a real good job working his butt off,” also noting that, “…he’s a large body. He can do things wrong and they have to run around a mountain to get to the quarterback. So that’s a good thing for us.”

Looking Ahead

Georgia will once again be one of the most deadly offenses in all of college football. They are able to trot out a trio of veteran wide receivers and a stable of running backs so jam packed with five-star prospects you’d think you were staring at the Big Dipper. RB D’Andre Swift is the team’s current front-runner for the Heisman trophy and rightfully so.

Whether it’s incumbent Jake Fromm or highly-touted newcomer Justin Fields under center, the Bulldogs will run just about everything you can think of, as the team really is that versatile. The run game will consist mostly of traditional zone and power runs with aspects of the wildcat thrown in there to shake things up. If head coach Kirby Smart decides to utilize what he has in Fields, I wouldn’t be surprise to see a number of designed QB runs around the goal line and short-yardage situations.

Excluding the Alabama Crimson Tide, not many defensive fronts will have the power to truly threaten this offensive line unit and I can’t help but predict another year of elite production for the Bulldogs.

Follow Michael on Twitter @ZoneTracks. Check out his other work here, such as his preview of the Notre Dame and Wisconsin offensive lines. 

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