Tyler Catalina didn’t have to previously deal with large crowds, national television appearances and a ravenous fan base clinging to each one of Georgia’s football games.
But since coming to Georgia for his lone football season as a graduate transfer, he’s seen quite a bit of this at the major SEC program. He’s gone against the best of the best in the conference, too, and feels his game has improved over time.
He’s also dealt with the criticism that comes when the team doesn’t fare well on a Saturday.
But Catalina doesn’t appear to have any issue with the negatives. He knew the deal when he decided to sign with Georgia.
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"You have to ignore it and keep working hard to get better," Catalina said.
Catalina’s started all nine games for Georgia at left tackle this season. That’s quite an accomplishment after spending three years at the FCS level at Rhode Island. But when Catalina decided to test the FBS waters after graduating, and after initially committing to Iowa State, a few SEC schools came calling, including Georgia, Auburn and Florida.
Catalina eventually decided on Georgia with a large part due to the connection he made with offensive line coach Sam Pittman.
But Catalina knows it hasn’t always been smooth for the line. Running the ball has been tough in games against Nicholls State, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Florida. It’s placed a lot of scrutiny on the offensive line unit as a whole, with Catalina getting the finger pointed at him at times.
The line has contributed to Georgia averaging 178.3 rushing yards per game, which ranks eighth in the conference.
Again, he understands it’s a part of what he signed up for.
"It seems like we’ve been the scapegoats for quite some time," Catalina said with a smile. "It’s been a tremendous experience all the way through. I wouldn’t trade it for anything."
Of course it hasn’t been all bad. Catalina recently accepted an invitation to play in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, which will take place on Jan. 21, 2017 in Los Angeles. Catalina didn’t expect an invite to an all-star game this quickly but jumped at the opportunity to play in one.
A major component for Catalina to transfer to Georgia was to get noticed by scouts for the shot at playing at the next level.
The NFLPA Collegiate Bowl invitation further validated his decision.
"That was the whole reason I came here, to compete against the best talent in the country and prove myself worthy of playing at the next level," Catalina said.
Catalina stated the obvious when asked about the speed of the game in the SEC. Having blocked FCS pass-rushers and run-stoppers in previous seasons, Catalina has been asked to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, South Carolina’s Darius English, Missouri’s Charles Harris, Kentucky’s Josh Allen and Mississippi’s Marquis Haynes.
All five of those standouts rank in the top 10 when it comes to sacks in the SEC. It doesn’t get any easier as Catalina will be asked to block Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson on Saturday.
"As an offensive line unit, you want to face that kind of challenge," Catalina said. "You want to be able to face as many guys as you can and shut them down the best you can. I know the guys in our room, we accepted that challenge and worked hard in practice."
Catalina, a native of Worcester, Massachusetts, wasn’t ranked out of high school and only garnered FCS recruiting attention.
As Catalina’s progressed through the season, he wishes he had another year to hone his skills in the SEC.
"Seeing what I’ve been coached to do and knowing what I can do at this level, obviously I want more years and more time to develop so I can prove myself at the next level," Catalina said. "I think I’ll be able to continue my growth into the next level and perform well."
Catalina and the Georgia offensive line is coming off one of its better games of the season. The running game picked up 215 rushing yards and quarterback Jacob Eason threw for 245 passing yards in a 27-24 win over Kentucky last week. More importantly, Eason stayed upright throughout the game and wasn’t sacked.
A year ago, quarterback Greyson Lambert, who started 12 games in 2015 but was replaced by Eason as a starter in Week 2, bought his linemen ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s if he wasn’t sacked in a game.
While Eason hasn’t picked up on thanking his linemen with ice cream, Catalina said the line’s performance was plenty satisfying.
"Having a sackless game is reward enough," he said.