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Spring non-QB position battle: Georgia offensive line

Georgia Bulldogs fans learned last year that it takes more than superstar talent in the backfield to have a dominant running game.

While Nick Chubb and Sony Michel rushed for a combined 1,970 yards, Georgia’s combination of a mediocre passing attack, a true freshman quarterback and an underwhelming offensive line left the Bulldogs 11th in the SEC in total offense (and ninth in rushing) a year ago.

Chubb and Michel still are around, and it stands to reason that Jacob Eason and the passing game will improve. But the position group that might allow the offense to truly take off? That’s an offensive line that must replace three starters.

Here’s a look at where things stand this spring before most of a star-studded signing class arrives this summer to further muddy the waters:

Departed: Tyler Catalina, Brandon Kublanow, Greg Pyke

Spring contenders: Isaiah Wynn, Lamont Gaillard, Dyshon Sims, Aulden Bynum, Solomon Kindley, D’Marcus Hayes, Ben Cleveland, Pat Allen, Sam Madden, Chris Barnes, Kendall Baker, Sage Hardin

Summer contenders: Isaiah Wilson, Andrew Thomas, Netori Johnson, D’Antne Demery, Justin Shaffer

The skinny: Although the Bulldogs have two starters back, it looks like the offensive line will be totally reconstructed in 2017. Wynn, who started 11 games at left guard and one at left tackle, is first in line to protect Eason’s blind side at left tackle this season. Gaillard, Georgia’s starting right guard a season ago, is sliding over a spot to replace Kublanow at center.

Otherwise, the offensive line is playing musical chairs this spring, as Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart predicted prior to spring practice. Dyshon Sims, who started twice at left guard last year, is looking to nail down that job this spring, while the right side of the line remains a bigger question.

On the edge, senior Aulden Bynum and junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes are the top contenders to grab the right tackle spot. And whichever redshirt freshman departs spring with the starting job at right guard -- whether it’s Solomon Kindley (6-foot-4, 341 pounds) or Ben Cleveland (6-6, 340) -- he’ll be a large human being.

Speaking of oversized people, the bulk of Georgia’s mammoth offensive line class is months away from arriving on campus. To date, only one signee (Hayes, the No. 12 prospect on ESPN’s JC50) already is in Athens and competing in spring practice. Once five-star tackle Isaiah Wilson (the No. 2 overall prospect on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 offensive tackle), Andrew Thomas (No. 40 overall, No. 7 OT), Netori Johnson (No. 142 overall, No. 10 OG), D’Antne Demery (No. 195 overall, No. 21 OT) and three-star guard Justin Shaffer make it to campus, the competition truly will begin.

Many recruiting analysts were high on this class for its college-ready ability, but its sheer size also is impressive. Three of the summer enrollees -- Wilson (6-7, 354), Johnson (6-4, 348) and Shaffer (6-5, 356) -- are heftier than anybody on Georgia’s spring roster. That brings to mind some of the jumbo offensive lines that Georgia OL coach Sam Pittman developed at Arkansas. But can he get the same results out of this bunch as he did with those Hogs? In time, that seems highly likely, but how many signees will be ready to compete this fall? That’s more difficult to predict with freshman offensive linemen who have not yet faced the size and talent that they would against SEC opposition this fall.

For that reason, no matter what happens with the line this spring, the absence of these blue chippers will leave any evaluation of the group incomplete for a few more months.

Prediction: Georgia likely will emerge as a popular pick to win the SEC East over the next several months. There’s a lot to like about this roster, but the key to the Bulldogs’ success might be significant improvement along the offensive line, allowing offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to open things up a bit and Eason to further develop. That’s a tall order for a line with so many guys playing new positions and/or handling expanded roles, but it’s possible. If the inexperienced linemen come along quickly -- especially if Pittman is able to rely on Wilson and at least two more newcomers right away -- it would not be a shock to see this line develop into an effective (maybe even dominant) bunch as the season progresses.