As a chubby boy who preferred sketching superheroes in his bedroom to playing sports, Max Jean-Gilles suffered silently through one weight joke after another from classmates. But when North Miami Beach High football coach Jeff Bertani introduced him to the line of scrimmage as a 10th-grader, Max found a way to capitalize on his size. "I realized that there might be more in this life for a fat boy like me," says Jean-Gilles. "Plus it felt pretty good to put people who tease you on their backs."
Six years later the 6'4", 340-pound Jean-Gilles is carrying Georgia on his back. The two-time All-SEC senior guard anchors an offensive line that includes 6'4", 297-pound senior center Russ Tanner (a 2004 Rimington Trophy finalist); 6'3", 285-pound junior guard Nick Jones; and two towering tackles, senior Dennis Roland (6'9", 309) and junior Daniel Inman (6'7", 328). Add 300-plus-pound junior guards Bartley Miller and Josh Brock, and 6'4", 335-pound sophomore tackle Chester Adams, a.k.a. the Big Cheese, and this might be the nation's most formidable blocking unit. While Georgia rebuilds its passing game--quarterback David Greene and receivers Reggie Brown and Fred Gibson were among six Bulldogs to go in the 2005 NFL draft--Jean-Gilles & Co. will help the sophomore tailback tandem of Thomas Brown and Danny Ware improve a rushing attack that ranked seventh in the SEC last season.
Two years ago Georgia's offensive line was the source of angst rather than optimism. With no junior or senior starters, it yielded an SEC-high 47 sacks. "We were like a bunch of puppies who needed training," says Jean-Gilles. Focusing on fundamentals the following spring, line coach Neil Callaway had players hang on monkey bars to improve their hand strength, and they broke out of prepractice meetings 30 minutes early for footwork drills. The players cut their sack total to 20 last fall and, says Callaway, "became the leaders that big, strong guys who no one wants to mess with ought to be."
No one has progressed more as a leader than Jean-Gilles. Like the shy boy he was growing up, "Max sat in the corner at meetings his first year here and didn't say a word," says Tanner. "Now he's the biggest rah-rah guy we have." Projected as a middle-round pick in last spring's NFL draft, Jean-Gilles decided that one final college season could improve his fortunes--as well as those of the Dawgs. Despite 42 wins in coach Mark Richt's four seasons, Georgia's fans are clamoring for more, namely a national championship. "You're going to hear me in the locker room," says Jean-Gilles. "I have a lot to prove, and so does everyone on this team." --K.K.
2004 RECORD 10--2 (6--2, 2nd in SEC East)
FINAL AP RANK 7 RETURNING STARTERS 15
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
RB Thomas Brown (Soph.) Sixth-ranked SEC rusher ran for eight TDs
G Max Jean-Gilles (Sr.) Skipped NFL draft to return for senior year
TE Leonard Pope (Jr.) Scored touchdowns in five straight games
LB Tony Taylor (Jr.) Missed last season with a torn ACL
Georgia's nonconference record in Mark Richt's four years as coach. The lone loss was to Boston College in the 2001 Music City Bowl.
At 6'7", 250 pounds, junior tight end Leonard Pope gives quarterback D.J. Shockley one enormous target. And Pope's speed is good enough to beat most linebackers, as he showed in averaging a team-high 19.3 yards per catch last year. With six touchdowns in the last seven games, Pope will be looking to pick up where he left off.
Sept. 3 BOISE STATE
10 SOUTH CAROLINA
17 LOUISIANA-MONROE 24 at Mississippi State
Oct. 8 at Tennessee
15 at Vanderbilt 22 ARKANSAS 29 at Florida
Nov. 12 AUBURN
19 KENTUCKY 26 GEORGIA TECH
Twice All-SEC, Jean-Gilles anchors a line that may be the nation's best.