I’m glad I’m not the only one struggling with Mark Richt’s comments yesterday about the kick return unit.
Malcolm Mitchell has returned nine kickoffs this year. Georgia’s average starting field position (excluding penalty yardage) after those returns is just over their own 25-yard line. So it’s a wash versus a touchback, right? Not exactly – those returns include four kicks that didn’t reach the endzone, so a touchback wasn’t an option. On the five kicks Mitchell has decided to bring out of the endzone, only one – a nice return to near midfield at South Carolina – went past the 25. The others went to the 16, 19, 17, and 16-yard lines. Even when you include kicks fielded short of the goal line, only three of Mitchell’s nine returns have been returned past the 25.
The new kickoff rules have changed the decision process for returns. Not only do returns begin deeper, but the coverage unit is starting five yards closer and is on the returner more quickly. Richt is correct when he admits that “I’d like just to take the 25-yard line” as a starting point for drives. There’s always the chance you could break a longer return, but Georgia’s results this year show that a touchback is optimal on a kick into the endzone.
So if a touchback is better than the typical result and it’s fine with the coach, is that being communicated to the returners and Mitchell in particular? If not, that’s a whole other coaching problem. If the players are being coached on the “new math” of kick returns, why does Richt continue to put someone back there who still has that itch to bring it out and won’t get to the 20-yard line 80% of the time?* That’s not “a little bit of gray area sometimes” as Richt puts it. It’s become a reliable way to lose field position. Short of making Jarvis Jones the guy who tells the returner to take a knee, I’m not sure what Richt expects to change.
After the Tennessee game, we were exasperated enough to count exactly how many yards Georgia cost itself due solely to the decisions of its kick and punt returners (the answer was 25 yards in that game). These decisions continue to cost yards: Mitchell’s two first-half returns from the endzone against Florida were nine and eight yards short of the 25-yard line. That’s a total of 17 yards lost just on kickoff returns – as good as another personal foul.
I’d have a lot less to say about this if Richt didn’t double down again on Mitchell and put him in to field two second half punts against Florida. Mitchell continues to prove how valuable and gifted he is as a receiver, but his decisions fielding punts handed the job to Rhett McGowan a month ago. Now McGowan let another punt bounce earlier in the Florida game, so I can understand if there was frustration there. I can also see Richt looking to the return game for a spark in a close game dominated by defense. It seemed like a dangerous call though to put in a punt returner who hadn’t fielded punts in a month and who was still making questionable decisions on his returns.
* – No, I don’t know what happened to Gurley either. He hasn’t returned a kick since that debacle on the one-yard line against Tennessee. I can see an argument that a fresh Gurley at tailback is more important than having him return kicks, but it didn’t seem to affect his play earlier in the season.