Former Dalton High standout Watts Dantzler was atop the depth chart at right tackle when the Georgia Bulldogs started preseason practice Thursday in Athens.
Dantzler, a 6-foot-7-inch, 320-pound sophomore who will be backed up by freshman John Theus, moved into the spot that would have belonged to Kolton Houston, a redshirt sophomore.
Houston was in the top spot after spring drills, but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said during a preseason news conference Thursday that Houston is still ineligible because he continues to test positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance he was given for a shoulder surgery more than two years ago. He first tested ineligible on April 13, 2010, according to onlineathens.com.
Houston is still allowed to practice, but for now his NCAA ineligibility means potential opportunity for Dantzler on game day.
Georgia, ranked sixth in the USA Today Top 25 football coaches preseason poll released on Thursday, opens it season at home on Sept. 1 against Buffalo and travels to Missouri the following week to begin Southeastern Conference play.
Between now and then, Richt is intent on finding a group that can handle the job up front.
“One of our bigger challenges of this camp is to put together our starting five, and then anybody else who we think is capable of playing SEC football up front, we’ve got to find out who they are,” Richt said during Thursday’s conference. “The two things are, get the starting lineup as soon as we possibly can and let them work together because ... they need to be a cohesive unit.
“They need to be a unit that works together in tandem and understands each others’ calls, and the communication is just so crucial up front. So we’re going to find five that can do it, as far as a starting five, and then we’re hoping to find two, three, four more that we think can play.”
Dantzler, who graduated from Dalton in 2011, was a three-time selection to The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Team. Despite battling a knee injury his senior season, he finished off a run of 31 consecutive starts and had 58 pancake blocks while paving the way for an offense that rushed for more than 2,000 yards during a 7-3 season in 2010. He earned a spot on the All-Region 7-3A Team that year and his second straight selection to the all-state teams for both The Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hotly recruited by schools throughout the SEC as well as Notre Dame, among others, Dantzler committed to the Bulldogs the summer before his senior year. After narrowing his final two choices to Auburn and Georgia, he made that announcement on Father’s Day to honor the memory of his late father, Danny Dantzler, a letterman on Georgia’s offensive line from 1971 to 1973 who died of ALS in 2009.
He signed in February 2011 as part of a class Richt referred to as his “Dream Team” and played in three games last season, when the Bulldogs went 10-4 and won the SEC East a year after suffering a losing record. Dantzler played in Georgia’s wins against Auburn, New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina, when his first series in a college game ended in a touchdown. With the Bulldogs leading by 45 points in the third quarter, quarterback Hutson Mason stretched the lead when he threw a 33-yard touchdown pass to Orson Charles.
He might have an even bigger role this year.
Richt said he’s confident the Bulldogs will have a good line, and that’s despite losing three starters who were picked up in the NFL draft: Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson.
“It will be a big challenge for us,” Richt said, “but the thing about offensive linemen that I’ve seen over the years is if you do have guys who understand what they’re doing and they do a great job with their assignments, of knowing who to block — coaches use the term put their hat on the right guy. You put your hat on the right guy and you fight for 60 minutes, you know, you can function pretty well offensively.
“I’ve got no doubt in my mind we’ll be able to find that group of guys, it’s just a matter of who it’s going to be and how quickly can we put it together to where that group can have some time working together to where we’re comfortable to open the season.”