Head of the Line

The team to beat only needs one of its young, talented blockers to take charge
August 10, 2008

GO AHEAD. Try to find a weakness in a team that has 17 starters returning, finished 2007 on a seven-game winning streak and averaged 37.8 points in its final six games. Look closely for the chink in the armor of the team that features a third-year starter at quarterback (Matthew Stafford), possibly the second coming of Herschel Walker (sophomore Knowshon Moreno), one of the nation's best linebacker tandems (Dannell Ellerbe and Rennie Curran), a stout defensive line and a shutdown secondary.

Offensive lineman Chris Davis can find the hole. He's one of the Bulldogs trying to fill it. Of the five starters Georgia must replace, Davis says, none will be missed more than center Fernando Velasco. During a 2007 season in which the Bulldogs started three freshmen up front—Davis and Clint Boling at the guards and Trinton Sturdivant at left tackle—Velasco was 328 pounds of glue. "Fernando was a lot older than we were, a lot wiser," says Davis, who has been working at center since Velasco's departure. "We were all young pups."

A rudderless line can sink a season; the stakes are even higher for a team with national title aspirations. It's not clear who will emerge as the line's new leader because Davis, Sturdivant and Boling (who faces a one-game suspension after pleading guilty last month to a reckless driving charge) all have the same amount of experience—and not one feels comfortable giving orders to the others.

What could make the line even younger is the emergence of Ben Jones, a freshman center who enrolled in January. He was impressive in spring practice, and coach Mark Richt hasn't ruled out starting him and sliding Davis back to left guard. "You can see he's coming," Richt says of Jones. "It might not be fast enough to start in the fall, but I wouldn't put it past him."

Georgia's linemen do have the ultimate confidence builder behind them. Despite sharing the load in the first half of the season, Moreno finished with 1,334 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. With his quick cuts and darting running style, he is a blocker's dream.

No matter how the lineup shakes out, someone must fill Velasco's leadership role. "We need to find that guy and follow him," Davis says. But Richt isn't worried that this team will lose its way. "We're thinking in terms of each man having to pull his own weight," Richt says, "and that might be good enough."

Perhaps even good enough to win a national title.

THE STAKES ARE HIGH, AND A RUDDERLESS LINE CAN SINK A SEASON.

CONFERENCE: SEC COACH: Mark Richt (8th year)

2007 RECORD: 11--2 (6--2 in SEC)

FINAL AP RANK: 2

RETURNING STARTERS

Offense 8, Defense 9

SCHEDULE

AUGUST
30 Georgia Southern

SEPTEMBER
6 Central Michigan
13 at South Carolina
20 at Arizona State
27 Alabama

OCTOBER
11 Tennessee
18 Vanderbilt
25 at LSU

NOVEMBER
1 Florida in Jacksonville
8 at Kentucky
15 at Auburn
29 Georgia Tech

KEY GAME

This shapes up as one of the most meaningful matchups in the history of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. After Florida had won eight of the previous nine meetings, the Dawgs stunned the Gators 42--30 last year.

WORTH NOTING

With games at South Carolina, LSU and Auburn (plus the date with Florida), the road schedule is brutal. But since 2004 Georgia is 13--4 in SEC games played outside Athens.

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PHOTOAL MESSERSCHMIDT/GETTY IMAGES (BOLING)With 11 starts as a freshman, Boling provides stability at right guard. PHOTORONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES (MORENO)His quick cuts and darting style make Moreno an offensive lineman's dream. PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)