23 For 2023 - The 23 People Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on UGA Football’s Success as it Pursues a Three-Peat
“Who would you rank as the coaches most important to UGA’s success?”
That question was recently posed to me by a DawgsCentral subscriber in response to a piece of intel that I posted on our forum. I started to type out a response, but a couple sentences in I realized that the answer to the question is quite complex. To make such a list, one must make broad value judgments on what assets are most important to a modern college football program.
When thinking about the answer I also found myself thinking about an old football cliche… "It's not the X's and the O's but the Jimmys and the Joes." That got me considering the players who will suit up on gamedays for Georgia next fall. Good gameplans and great play calls are key to any team’s success, but they are usually only as good as the personnel executing them.
With that in mind, I decided to broaden the scope of these rankings beyond just members of the coaching staff. As I go through this list I will touch on every position room and virtually every facet of the Georgia Football program. In that way, it will serve as both my version of a spring practice preview and a look at the state of the program.
So without further adieu, here are the 23 people most crucial to UGA’s success in the year 2023. Whether or not Georgia is able to win a third straight championship, and how they go about trying to do it, will be largely influenced by the roles these individuals play…
#12 - Earnest Greene
UGA won back-to-back national championships with Broderick Jones and Warren McClendon manning the tackle positions on the offensive line. Both were selected a few weeks ago in the NFL Draft. Jones went 14th overall to the Pittsburgh Steelers and McClendon was picked in the 5th round by the Los Angeles Rams. It’s rare to find a college offensive line that loses its starting tackles to the NFL and improves.
For Georgia in 2023, that possibility is very much on the table. Jones and McClendon are gone, but the Dawgs return four players with starting experience up front…
- Sedrick Van Pran is back in the middle after anchoring national championship winning offensive lines in consecutive seasons. He played 881 snaps in 2021 and another 972 in 2022. When he debuted as a starter in the 2021 season he still had some growing to do. There were times where he would miss an assignment when blocking zone runs or not quite find the right defender to block when pulling on gap scheme runs. In pass protection he would occasionally help out his Guards to early and double team a defender before a delayed blitz would develop. That changed in 2022. Nobody was more consistent up front for UGA last year than Van Pran. He allowed just 12 pressures across 496 pass blocking snaps and never gave up a sack. He’s not always an overpowering force in zone run blocking but he is a savvy blocker who knows how to turn his defender out of a hole. On gap scheme runs he can be dominant. His pad level is exceptional and he uses his quickness to turn the corner and flatten defenders. Perhaps best of all for a UGA offense that breaks in a new starter in 2023, Van Pran understands all of the offense’s pass protections. Watch games closely and he is often pointing out defenders pre-snap and giving instructions to his teammates. If Carson Beck misses a check at the line of scrimmage there is a good chance that Van Pran will catch it for him.
- Tate Ratledge fulfilled his five-star promise over the back half of the 2022 season. In UGA’s 2021 preseason camp he was seen as the best Guard on the roster. It put UGA’s interior line when he was lost for the year just one series into the season opener against Clemson. It took him a long time to recover from the foot fracture that he suffered that night. Almost a full year had passed when the Dawgs entered fall camp ahead of the 2022 season, but Ratledge was still dealing with pain and swelling at that time. Georgia knew his upside was higher than any other Guard on the roster, but they held him back and monitored his reps to ensure he wouldn’t reinjure himself. You could tell that Ratledge was still working himself back into shape in early 2022. He struggled to get up to speed when pulling and his footwork was rusty at times in pass protection. Georgia stuck with him. He started to peak after UGA had their bye week in late-October. By the Florida game he looked sharper both physically and mentally. He helped UGA maul the Gators with their gap scheme run concepts and his pass protection became elite. He finished the season with PFF Pass Blocking Grade of 87.1. That was the highest among any UGA lineman (Jones had an 84.1 while McClendon graded out with an 82.1). He is 100% entrenched as the Right Guard on the 2023 team and after getting 844 snaps under his belt last season he is now a proven veteran who has been through plenty of battles in the SEC.
- Xavier Truss is the guy who should fill the role as the Left Guard for Georgia in 2022. We first saw him called into action on the road in Knoxville in 2021. He filled in when injuries hit UGA up front and immediately opened holes in the run game. His ability to move big bodies for his running backs has never been in question, but there was a time where we wondered if he was quick enough to be effective in pass protection and UGA’s gap scheme runs. He allowed 14 pressures last year and still isn’t a great pass protector, but he might be the most efficient linemen that UGA has when it comes time to deploy their zone scheme runs. With 4 years in the program, he has a full understanding of what Georgia wants to do up front. It will be interesting to see what a full offseason as an entrenched starter does for his game. He is a solid player who can still improve, but he has shown that he can hold up in big games. There is a chance that a younger player with a higher athletic upside could push him this fall. Micah Morris and Dylan Fairchild are both entering their 3rd year in the program and are the most likely candidates to push Truss. Fall camp will tell us a lot about their chances of taking snaps from the veteran, but for now I would put my money on the experience of Truss winning out.
- Amarius Mims might be the most physically gifted offensive lineman in the history of the program. I know that is a big statement however I think it is also true. UGA has had 6 Tackles taken in the 1st round of the NFL Draft since 2003, but none of them had the upside of Mims. You saw that upside every time he came into a game last season. Mims has so much potential that he demanded playing time even in a room with 2 future NFL players. He came in for the 3rd series of the game each week and played starter level snaps when McClendon was banged up late in the year. On the season, he tallied 385 snaps and was the highest graded run blocker of any UGA lineman who took snaps in non-garbage time situations. He played his best in UGA’s biggest games. He played 57 snaps against LSU in the SEC Championship and didn’t allow a pressure. Against Ohio State in the CFP Semifinal he started in place of a hobbled McClendon. He again allowed 0 pressures despite facing two talented edge rushers. He was the highest graded pass blocker AND the highest graded run blocker on the UGA OL against the Buckeyes. Mims will likely be a top 10 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft and he should dominate almost everyone he lines up against for UGA in 2023.
As you can see, the Bulldogs have known commodities at Right Tackle, Right Guard, Center and Left Guard. The combo of Van Pran-Ratledge-Mims across the right side of the line will be as good as any in college football in 2023. Figuring out who will play Left Tackle is the only real question for this unit.
Prior to spring practice there was some speculation that Mims could flip over to the left side of the line, but he was so good at Right Tackle that it appears UGA has decided to leave him there for 2023. The logic of that strategy seems sound to me. There is no reason to turn a need at one position into a need at two positions.
The man who is most likely to become Georgia’s starting Left Tackle is person #12 on our 23 for 2023 list. That is rising sophomore Earnest Greene. He is one of the highest ranked players on the list and the reason why is quite simple… If Greene is as good as I think he can be then the offensive line can be the best unit on Georgia’s team next season. I have spent most of my life training to be a college football analyst and one of my core beliefs is that having an excellent offensive line is the best thing you can have going into a season. With an elite OL your team can dictate the pace of any game it plays and your quarterback is rarely put in bad situations. Your team is likely to be highly efficient and stay ahead of the chains and your wide-receivers are likely to see a lot of coverages they can beat because the opponent will be ground to death by your ground game if it doesn’t commit more bodies to stopping the run. Lastly, play-action passes are almost 3 times more effective than passes attempted off traditional dropbacks in college football (This is a wild stat that was told to me a few years ago and I couldn’t believe it at first but it is true). If your team is strong up front then your opponent has to respect those play-action fakes… All these things are an advantage for any football team but they’re even better for a team that is breaking in a new starting quarterback like 2023 Georgia.
So now that you know why I think Greene is so important to UGA’s pursuit of a three-peat, let’s look at how he got to Georgia. Him being on the roster is noteworthy in that he is a product of the machine that Kirby Smart has built in Athens. He is a native of Los Angeles and came to UGA from St. John Bosco High School. Bosco is a football factory that has fed the rosters of blue blood programs West of the Mississippi for decades. Pete Carroll built a dynasty at USC in the early 2000’s with players from Bosco and their arch rival in the Mater Dei. The school has produced five-star QB’s like Josh Rosen and DJ Uiagaleilei and it is constantly swarming with coaches from the Pac-12 and Big 10.
There are plenty of skill players and QB’s who come out of high schools that lie West of Texas, but there is a shortage of big athletic linemen like Greene. California schools produce a lot of D1 football players but states like Georgia, Florida, Texas, Mississippi and Alabama produce a much higher percentage of elite offensive and defensive linemen. For schools like USC, Washington and Oregon to thrive they need to keep elite linemen like Earnest Greene from the SEC. The best players in the South tend to stay in the South. Schools like Oklahoma and Ohio State also need to get a good chunk of the talent produced out West.
Georgia has shown it can be an elite program by putting a fence around its own state and taking one or two of the best players from surrounding states every cycle. Kirby Smart has built UGA into a burgeoning dynasty by dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. UGA is already better up front than any program in the sport, so seeing the Bulldogs come into SoCal to take a player like Greene is the type of thing that makes the rest of college football quiver in its boots.
Historically, only a select few programs are able to pull California kids out of the region. Alabama has been doing it for awhile now under Nick Saban. Ohio State has a lot of talent from the West Coast and Arizona on its roster. UGA beat both programs for Greene.
So, why did Smart and Georgia travel over 2,000 miles for his pledge? First off, his versatility in high-school was a good indicator that he could be successful in UGA’s scheme. He played at 6’5” and 330 pounds in high-school and saw snaps at both tackle positions and on the interior of the line. He’s leaned out some since getting to Athens, but at 330 he still had the quickness to get to the second level and flatten defenders. Couple that athleticism with the size he has and you have a lineman who is well-suited to play in Georgia’s unique 50/50 blend of gap and zone scheme runs.
Greene plays fast. Even in short yardage situations you will see plays where he chips the DE and then flattens a LB at the second level. When he showed up in Athens I immediately heard buzz about him. Part of that is his natural physical gifts, but I think a bigger reason why he is primed for this moment is his natural processing ability on the field.
He is not just a big man hitting whatever is in front of him. He plays savvily and picks out his defenders on pulls and zone blocking runs. In pass protection he has good feet and gets out of his stance quickly. The most impressive technical aspect of his game is the way Greene uses his hands. He has strong hands and uses them to knock defenders off their paths without ever really reaching. When he pushes it looks like he’s delivering a quick punch. That’s something that usually takes years of college coaching to develop.
Greene’s high-school tape shows a player who consistently plays to the whistle. He is not dirty but he has an edge to his game where he plays with controlled aggression and likes to finish blocks by putting guys into the ground. That made him a good fit for the personality of UGA’s line when he arrived on campus. Due to a back injury we didn’t get to see Earnest last season, but he was solid throughout spring practice despite still not being 100% from the back. He did enough in spring ball to start with the first team OL on G-day and he looked good going against UGA’s first team defense in the reps we saw from him. On the first team offense’s second drive he opened up a hole off the left side that allowed Sevaughn Clark to score on a 9-yard TD run.
We should see a lot more of Greene in 2023. If he plays up to his potential at Left Tackle then Georgia is likely to have the best offensive line in the country… That group might pave the way for Georgia’s run at a third straight title and a spot in college football history.