Once a hallmark of Georgia’s success last decade, the special teams units of 2013 weren’t much to be proud of. The first half of the season was particularly bad. Georgia either gave up points or missed scoring chances as a direct result of special teams miscues in five of the first seven games. The blocked punt at Tennessee ended up affecting the punting game for the rest of the season, and the breakdowns at Vanderbilt led to an extremely poor loss.
Things got a little better towards the end of the year if only because Georgia, well, punted. If fake punts were a concern, it was enough to abandon any notion of a return. Incoming assistant coach Mike Ekeler joked in his interview that “you set an NCAA record for being in punt safe.” If such a record exists, Ekeler’s claim can’t be far off. Even when punts were fielded, the returners were on their own as far as technique, and the results were obvious.
The defensive coaching change gave Georgia the opportunity to address special teams. This need was a big part of the reason behind hiring someone like Ekeler who played linebacker and special teams for Bill Snyder at Kansas State. Though special teams responsibilities will still be distributed across the staff, John Lilly and Ekeler have been named special teams coodinators for offense and defense. Lilly will oversee punt coverage, kickoff returns, and placekicks. Ekeler will oversee kickoff coverage, punt returns, and defending placekicks. The difference might be subtle, but there is still a greater emphasis this year on accountability and instruction.
If there are to be changes on special teams, it will have to come from coaching because the personnel is more or less the same (with one big exception). In 2013 punting took a turn for the worse at midseason. Collin Barber took a concussion on a blocked punt at Tennessee. He went from 46.75 yards per punt before that game to 40.8 yards per punt afterwards. Barber eventually ceded the job to Adam Erickson who had primarily only been the pooch punter to that point. Those two return in 2014, and it’s still undecided which will be Georgia’s primary punter.
If there was one area of strength on special teams last season, it was placekicker Marshall Morgan. Morgan shook off an inconsistent freshman campaign and a suspension at the start of the 2013 season to emerge as a dependable weapon – even from beyond 50 yards out. Morgan has been putting in the work in the offseason to get even better, and we’ll feel confident in Georgia’s chances of getting points anytime they cross the opponent’s 40.
Georgia took the unusual step in the 2014 signing class of inking a prospect primarily on his future as a return specialist. Isaiah McKenzie could see time as a wide receiver, but he’s much more likely to get on the field first as a kick and punt returner. McKenzie turned heads during preseason camp with his combination of speed and elusiveness. Some overenthusiastic fans have even given him the nickname “The Human Joystick” for his ability to shift as if he were playing a video game. If there’s one thing that might keep him off the field at first, it’s a hesitancy to put a true freshman in the situation of having to cleanly field and return a kick in a huge game on national television. So you might see Reggie Davis or someone else out there for the first few kicks, but this is eventually going to be McKenzie’s job.
One other change you might notice is an increased use of starters on special teams. We have this discussion almost every year about the trade-offs between putting the skills of starter-level talent on the field vs. the risk of a Boss Bailey type of injury. Remember that Justin Scott-Wesley got hurt last year covering a punt. But the staff is in the corner of playing starters, and the AJC has a good look at how that might work:
the goal is for all defensive starters to play on at least two special teams, but walk-ons with special-team expertise, such as Kosta Vavlas or Lucas Redd, won’t be pulled off “just to say we’ve got a starter in there.”
Hopefully some combination of personnel, a more aggressive approach to special teams, and increased attention and teaching from the coaches will pay off. I’d say that I’d be happy if special teams just avoided the catastrophic mistakes that affected the outcomes of games last season. I remember though the Richt teams where special teams often made the plays that meant a momentum shift in Georgia’s favor, and I hope that’s the standard this staff has in mind now.