ATLANTA — Georgia’s offensive line got one solid, unsuspecting endorsement Saturday during the College Football Playoff media day at Phillips Arena.
“Watching film, they do a lot of great things and like to dominate up front,” said Alabama junior defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, who snagged a deflected Clemson pass for an interception and then caught a key touchdown pass on the next drive for the Crimson Tide in their 24-6 semifinal win over the Tigers. "I think it's going to be a tough, tough battle all day."
The Bulldogs' young-ish front five -- anchored by senior Isaiah Wynn, juniors Lamont Gaillard and Kendall Baker, and freshmen Andrew Thomas and Stephens County’s Ben Cleveland -- have been on a steady, upward trend most of the season. Wynn, Gaillard, and Thomas have started since the season-opener against Appalachian State. Baker and Cleveland were inserted as permanent starters beginning with the Kentucky game.
But for Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman, talent trumps experience. Thomas and Cleveland occupy the entire right side of the line, where Payne will reside most of the evening for the Tide defense. Payne had a season-high five tackles and a sack against Clemson.
The Tide also will bring the nation’s top overall defensive unit into the CFP title game, with Da'Shawn Hand, Isaiah Buggs, Raekwon Davis, and Payne anchoring a front-7 that has 30.5 tackles for loss and 20.5 sacks on the season.
“The old cliche about experience, experience, experience, is a big deal,” Pittman said. “But I’ve never worried about two freshman being on the same side, oh no. I feel like I can teach them what to do.
“If a guy is close and about as good as the older guy then the older guy goes to the second team because I know the younger will pass him up if we play him. So we’re going to give our younger kids every opportunity to come in and play for us. (Ben) and Thomas are pretty good players and they have talent and size and if you have both of those there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play early on.”
Cleveland, at 6-foot-6, 340 pounds, offered Pittman a unique challenge, however, in that he was looked upon by fans as an instant starter and possible savior to a shaky offensive line when he arrived in Athens in the spring of 2016. Only, he didn’t exactly see it the same way.
“When he first came in he really wasn’t ready for this level,” Pittman said. “When he redshirted I saw last spring (2017) that it looked like it finally became important to him to be successful. Early in the fall he played well in the games he got in and about two weeks before the Auburn game we felt like we needed to be playing him more and then after the Auburn game, of course, we put him in as the starter and he’s been there ever since.”
Cleveland said the best thing to happen to his young, burgeoning career was not to play his initial freshman season. Something you seldom hear in today's world of athletics where everyone expects to play from Day 1.
“That was probably the best thing to happen to me,” he said. “The redshirt was all for development. I didn’t have to focus on playing; I could focus on bettering myself for moments like this.”
“Ben is a smart kid and I think he understood he wasn’t ready either. Ben is a big, physical guy and he always has been; he just didn’t know he was,” Pittman said.
Now, the entire college football-watching world will get see to if Pittman’s assessment of his young group is up to its biggest challenge of the season: opening holes for Nick Chubb and Sony Michel while protecting freshman quarterback Jake Fromm against a Bama unit that held a solid Clemson rushing attack to just 64 yards on 33 carries in the semifinals.
Georgia is averaging 267 yards a game on the with both Chubb and Michel cracking the 1,000-yard mark giving Georgia a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in one season for the first time in its history.
Cleveland felt the Dogs’ success can be attributed to more than just big humans blocking other big humans.
“I think that it's a little bit more than talent,” he said. “The talent level is amazing, but I think what tops that is just the trust level. All the running backs trust the o-line to do their job. And the o-line trusts the running back to see the holes and cuts. And we rely on the quarterback to make the right calls, get us in the right protections.”
But, he also knows the Tide take pride in not allowing any team to rush for the century-mark, much less a single player.
“(Alabama is) big up front; big, fast and physical,” he said. “But we’re just going to stick to our technique, stick to what we’ve been doing for the last 6-7 months, so hopefully we can get them guys moving and give our backs something to work with.”
If Cleveland and the rest of the bunch can win that battle, Georgia just may be celebrating its first national title since 1981.
“Every game is won in the trenches. They have a great history; we have a great history as well, so hopefully it’s going to be a good game,” Cleveland said.