FAYETTEVILLE — His first few seasons at Georgia, Fernando Velasco followed the pack. He listened to his elders. He sought out advice. He soaked in knowledge.
He didn’t, even for a second, presume to know enough to push his own ideas on other players. Even last year, as a fourth-year junior who started every game, merely went about his business quietly.
“It wasn’t ever my place,” said Velasco, the only senior lineman on this year’s Bulldogs roster. “This year, it is. It’s been a little weird. But I like it, and it seems like all the other guys appreciate the help.”
All the time as an attentive apprentice has turned Velasco into a valuable mentor. And, simply put, the Bulldogs need Velasco’s leadership more than possibly any other player this season.
Predicted by many to challenge for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title, Georgia has a bevy of talented, yet inexperienced players on its offensive line. At the moment, three freshmen and one sophomore are projected to start around Velasco, who switched from guard to center for this season.
“Those young guys need him,” said safety Kelin Johnson, the Bulldogs’ defensive leader. “Fernando’s been here forever it feels like. So he has a lot of knowledge to share.”
Velasco gained all that wisdom over a four-year span. Like many offensive linemen, he arrived at college needing to put on weight and work on his toughness.
Injuries to other linemen, though, pressed him into action during his true freshman and sophomore seasons. The on-the-job training was rough, but memorable.
“I can remember getting pushed around quite a bit,” Velasco said. “But I learned something new every day.”
His teammates learned some things, as well. Mainly, they learned that Velasco’s work ethic ranks second to nobody. In both of those first two seasons, Velasco earned the team’s Iron Man Award.
The award is presented to a player who “shows up every day for work, never late, and strains his potential in every endeavor.” That was Velasco — in the weight room, in the meeting room, in the classroom, on the practice field and on game days.
He kept that positive attitude throughout his third year in Athens, a rare non-injury redshirt season after two years of playing.
“I just had faith that the coaches knew what they were doing,” Velasco said.
They did. Velasco was an integral member of last year’s line and figures to challenge for all-SEC honors this season.
The move to center has been difficult, Velasco said.
“There’s a lot more going on,” Velasco said. “You’re in charge basically. You have to tell people what to do, and you have to make calls and adjustments.”
But it’s nothing someone of Velasco’s character can’t handle.
“I just know he’s going to become even better at center than he was at guard,” Johnson said.
COACH: Mark Richt, 7th year.
2006 RECORD: 9-4, 4-4 SEC.
RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: 7.
RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS: 4.
OFFENSIVE FORMATION: I-Formation.
DEFENSIVE FORMATION: 4-3.
IMPACT PLAYERS: Quarterback Matthew Stafford, center Fernando Velasco, safety Kelin Johnson and wide receivers Sean Bailey and Mohamed Massaquoi.
SUNDAY’S PREVIEW: Vanderbilt’s Earl Bennett.