Matt Luke gears up for sophomore year at UGA
The second-year offensive line coach will try to find the 'pieces to the puzzle' heading into next season
(Photo from UGA Sports Communications)
When Sam Pittman took the job at Arkansas, many thought it would be hard to replace him, but Georgia head coach Kirby Smart reacted fast and brought in an excellent hire in former Ole Miss head coach Matt Luke.
Less than a month after being hired, Luke managed to keep most of Pittmans’ targets out of the 2020 class committed to Georgia and signed some potential future greats in the 2021 cycle. The Bulldogs inked the No. 4 overall class in 2021, which features four offensive linemen, including blue-chip prospect Amarius Mims.
Now, heading into spring practice, Georgia’s offensive line is a going through a transition period, even though the position group returns a lot of guys who played meaningful snaps last season.
On Monday, Luke said that there is no clear starting five yet, but he does think he will have more of a blueprint after spring camp transitioning into the fall.
“I think we have been focusing on culture and unselfishness and buying in,” Luke said. “Guys like Jamaree [Salyer] coming back and [Justin] Shaffer and Warren Ericson, they have been doing a great job of leading. I think, with guys that have some experience, it does give you a little bit of flexibility. Without having a spring last year, I am really excited about the competition coming up this spring.”
Luke added that getting to practice this time in March is crucial, especially because nearly “65-70 percent of the team” hasn’t participated in spring practice yet.
“It is big,” Luke said. “The best way for guys to get better at football is to go play football. To go get those reps, it is invaluable. Losing guys like Trey [Hill] and Ben [Cleveland] that have had a bunch of reps. Those reps will be huge for us moving forward.”
Georgia is lucky this offseason though because last year the program had to replace Andrew Thomas, Isaiah Wilson and Solomon Kindley, who all elected to enter the NFL Draft. Then, Cade Mays decided to enter the transfer portal after starting in the Allstate Sugar Bowl and most of the 2019 season. Still, losing Cleveland and Hill hurts, but the turnover isn’t as bad.
“I think that anytime you have to replace people, it's tough,” Luke said, “especially going against a quality defense I do think that, moving forward, we have some pieces to the puzzle, but they have to go in there and get the experience.”
Georgia had a makeshift offensive line during the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and its possible those same five guys could be the starters against Clemson in the 2021 season opener.
“To me, that was just a starting point,” Luke said. “Now you move forward. You have 15 practices in the spring, then you have all summer, then you have fall camp. It is some experience, like for Xavier [Truss], he got his feet wet. You are looking to build off of that in these practices and obviously summer and fall camp, so you are excited that you can really build off of that experience.”
In that game, Xavier Truss made his first start at left tackle, Salyer moved to left guard, Ericson at center, Shaffer at right guard and Warren McClendon at right tackle. Those five guys are all solid options, but there might be some reshuffling come fall because nothing is guaranteed. There are also some projected position battles that could also take place, especially on the interior line.
Ericson started at center several times last year, but he also took snaps at right. So, redshirt freshman Sedrick Van Pran-Granger is expected to compete for that starting position in the middle. Then, there’s redshirt freshman Broderick Jones, who could play extensively in 2021.
“I am excited to see him compete in the spring,” Luke said. “He does have a lot of ability. I’m just excited to see him get in there and compete and get the reps. Going against quality guys on defense, I think that will be key as well.”
Luke seemed equally excited about Mims’ potential, too.
“I am really excited about him because he has handled his business,” Luke said. “You got to think, he should be probably getting ready for senior prom, but he is here working. I am just really excited to see how he does in spring ball.”
Other notable names to watch are Tate Ratledge, Clay Webb, Owen Condon, and Chad Lindberg.
Smart said on Monday that the focus has “really not been on what position each guy is going to play, but more about how do we get the best out of each person.”
“A couple of those guys are leaders on the team so it’s not just getting the best out of them, it’s them getting the best out of everybody else. Can they hold guys accountable? Can they set the standard and demand the standard? That’s kind of our approach to the offseason.”"